Zhang Shupeng, the first Chinese Wingsuit athlete

Editor︰Ivy Cin

Wingsuit flying is known as the world's craziest extreme sport. In Asia, the only person who has reached the standards of a professional athlete is Zhang Shupeng from China.

This sport seems crazy to others, but to Zhang Shupeng, ruling the wind and competing with eagles makes him feel his existence and the meaning of freedom.

The only professional athlete of wingsuit flying in Asia

Wingsuit flying was born in the 1990s. Athletes have to wear specially made flying suits and parachute equipment and jump from high places such as airplanes, hot air balloons, cliff edges, high-rise buildings, and then perform powerless flight in the air.

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Wingsuit flying requires jumping from a high place and then conducting an unpowered flight in the air. The image shows the 2019 Wingsuit Flying World Championships. (Image source: Zhang Shupeng @Weibo)

The speed of wingsuit flying can usually reach about 200 kilometers per hour, which is extremely dangerous and challenging.

Only over 1,500 people in the world dare to try it, and the number of people who are actually eligible to be wingsuit flyers is just around 300. Zhang Shupeng is one of them, and he is the only flyer in Asia who can meet the standards of a professional wingsuit athlete.

Zhang Shupeng, born in Inner Mongolia in the mid-1980s, has had the dream of "flying" since he was a child. Before engaging in wingsuit flying, he was a paraglider athlete, winning China's first gold medal in Paragliding World Championships in 2009.

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The picture shows Zhang during powered paraglider training. (Image source: Zhang Shupeng @Weibo)

Having achieved some success in paragliding, Zhang Shupeng started looking for the next goal.

At this time, coincidentally, he came to Zhangjiajie's Tianmen Mountain in Hunan Province to watch a wingsuit flying competition. Watching the athletes' chic and graceful flight trajectories, Zhang Shupeng felt that his dream of flying was awakened.

He couldn't wait to try the first wingsuit flight. "The feeling was too shocking," said Zhang, "Only when I flew did I realise that I had been ready a long time ago, and unfortunately, I started too late."

Zhang started halfway but repeatedly won first place

To make up for the regret of starting too late, Zhang Shupeng plunged into practice.

Ordinary people need to go through long stages to master wingsuit flying: complete 200 parachute training sessions to learn high-altitude wingsuit flying; accumulate 100 high-altitude flights to enter low-altitude parachuting; complete 100 low-altitude parachutes to enter low-altitude flying practice.

This process generally takes two to three years, but Zhang Shupeng got his parachuting license in just 16 days, followed by only a little more than one month to complete the hundreds of flights necessary before learning wingsuit flying.

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"I dreamt of growing a pair of wings and flying by flapping wings on the ground," said Zhang. (Image source: Zhang Shupeng @Weibo)

In 2016, as the only Asian athlete, Zhang represented China in the Wingsuit Flying World Championships.

Starting from scratch to participating in professional competitions, it took him only 5 years. Others praised him for being talented, but in his view, this was just the result of constantly conquering himself.

A year later, Zhang Shupeng won the runner-up in the precision target competition in the World Championships, creating the best result of Asians in this event, but he wanted to continue to break through himself —— challenging Tianmen Mountain of Zhangjiajie, known as the paradise of extreme sports.

To achieve his goal, Zhang Shupeng spent most of the year at Tianmen Mountain, conducting over 1,200 flights in total and getting familiar with the local terrain and mountain shapes, which made him know even more than the staff there.

At the end of April this year, he jumped from an altitude of 2,000 metres and passed through the Tianmen Cave at an average speed of 180 kilometers per hour, becoming the first Chinese to fly through the Cave in wingsuit.

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On April 30, 2023, Zhang Shupeng became the first Chinese to fly through the Tianmen Cave in wingsuit. (Image source: VCG)

Zhang Shupeng: Self-challenging means a lot

Extreme sports have always been controversial.

In May 2020, a wingsuit flyer died during the filming of a documentary in Tianmen Mountain due to deviation from the planned route. This niche sport immediately provoked widespread discussion, with many people even blaming the athletes for not cherishing their lives.

But in Zhang's view, wingsuit flying is not a crazy sport, although it has a low fault tolerance.

"Jokingly speaking, driving to a parachuting location may be more dangerous than parachuting itself. We understand the rules, venue conditions, and equipment of wingsuit flying. So I always think it’s a sport where safety is in our hands."

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Zhang once said, "Flying is a process of pursuing oneself. When gazing at the stars, overlooking the earth, and communicating with nature, I truly feel my existence and the meaning of freedom." (Image source: VCG)

Many people believe that those who engage in this sport are prone to impulse and love adventures, but in fact it is a game that cannot be replayed after losing, because wingsuit flying does not allow mistakes. Therefore, it requires athletes to be more cautious, rational, and meticulous.

In Zhang’s mind, sticking to flying is not just to catch others' attention, nor solely for seeking thrills. It is about constantly challenging himself.

"I have a deep-rooted love for challenges," said Zhang, "I have the gene of wanting to challenge and break through, and nothing is more meaningful than challenging myself."

Read more: Zhang Hong: Asia's first blind man who climb up Mount Everest

Read more: 8-year-old Wang Zishuo breaks the national rock climbing record

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