Asian Games: Paragliding pilot Jessica Goh reaches for new heights on Asiad debut

Paragliding pilot Jessica Goh will represent Singapore at the Asian Games in Indonesia, where paragliding is making its debut.
Paragliding pilot Jessica Goh will represent Singapore at the Asian Games in Indonesia, where paragliding is making its debut.PHOTO: COURTESY OF JESSICA GOH

SINGAPORE - What goes up must come down but, for paragliding pilot Jessica Goh, there are few lows in a sport of flying.

Ask the 39-year-old about her first brush with paragliding six years ago and there is a three-second pause before she produces an ode to flight: "It was an amazing feeling. When I took the glider up and my feet left the ground... wow.

"The feeling of peace (from being) up there and you're just floating around and you can throw all your cares in the world on to the ground and you're there with amazing scenery in front of you with rolling hills, the meandering river and you have the wide expanse of blue sky and fluffy clouds... it's just an amazing feeling."

Six years on, her passion for the sport, which involves flying a light aircraft called a glider, still runs high.

The former executive now lives in Sabah, where she moved to just months after her maiden paragliding experience, to train full-time. She is the 2015 women's world champion after finishing top among the female competitors at the 2015 Paragliding Accuracy World Cup. And she will represent Singapore at this month's Asian Games in Indonesia, where the sport will debut.

Goh believes her "defining moment" in the sport came in 2012 when she was a spectator at a paragliding accuracy competition in Taiwan.

"When I saw the level of skill there, I was just amazed at how they could control the glider with such ease and elegance," said Goh, who keeps videos of herself paragliding on her phone by way of explaining the sport to people. "I wanted to do that, too."

Mastering the sport of paragliding has required Goh, who studied science in junior college, to also become a student of meteorology, physics and geography.

Besides motor skills and understanding the physics of flight, knowledge of wind flow and the formation of clouds are also required.

A good paragliding pilot, said Goh, must also be able to control his or her glider under different wind conditions. Pulling the brake controls too suddenly, for instance, can cause the glider to veer off-centre and become unstable.

Goh, who has read textbooks on paragliding, added: "If you don't understand the terrain and you go into turbulence... you could get into an accident."

One of the main things she always emphasises to new practitioners of the sport is that proper risk assessment and judgment of safety are of the highest priority.

"You can keep your glider if the conditions are not right or if you're not feeling good, and you can come back and fly the next day," she added. "But, if something does happen to you, you won't get to fly again."

She is self-funded and has relied on her savings - Goh estimates that she has spent between $150,000 to $200,000.

Limited resources mean she has often been forced to make a choice between using her funds to travel to more competitions, or to buy new equipment for more efficient training. A brand new glider can cost between €2,500 (S$3,900) to €6,000. But Goh remains certain of her chosen path.

"When this is something you want to do, you'll find a way to get it done," she said.

"I fell in love with the sport, I have a lot of passion for this sport and there are certain things along the way that I realise I have to do. And I decided that if this is what I want, I'll have to find a way to get it."

Goh started by training with second-hand equipment, and used only brand-new equipment for the first time at the beginning of the 2015 season. Her breakthrough at the Paragliding Accuracy World Cup that year came only after she overcame a mentality that she described as "self-limiting".

Her coach, a Malaysian paragliding pilot, had won the Philippines leg of the competition despite picking up the sport just two years before Goh.

Said the latter: "In 2014, he was confident that I could start winning, but I didn't because I was making very silly mistakes and I didn't think I could do it.

"But, when my coach himself won, it opened my mind and I thought I could do this too, and I went on to win the competition."

The oldest of four daughters acknowledged there were some concerns about safety from her loved ones, but said there were no strong objections.

She added: "They've come to understand my achievements and I'm very happy they're proud of me.

"Your loved ones will always want you to put your own safety first, but I really like the sport and I know myself - I'm trying to pursue it in the safest possible manner."

At the Gunung Mas Puncak competition site in West Java, she will compete in two categories. Her pet event, accuracy, requires pilots to land precisely in the centre of an electronic target pad with a five-metre radius. The centre of the pad is 2cm in diameter, and landing exactly in the middle would earn the pilot a perfect score of zero.

In the cross-country category, which will be held over five days, competitors must complete a course in the shortest possible time.

Goh is an adventure sports buff who has taken up diving and completed a windsurfing course. Her bucket list includes kayaking, climbing, bungee jumping and skydiving, but the pursuit of these activities has been put on hold since she started paragliding.

"Whenever I had to consider what to do next and go through the pros and cons, the next step I took was always (to do) more paragliding," she said.

"I'm so in love with this sport and all my energy is focused on doing well and continuing to gain more knowledge and skill so that I can practise this for as long as possible."

Her dream has taken flight. Now, Goh wants to reach new heights.