China’s — River Flyer

China - River Flyer

 

River is a 39-year-old senior paragliding pilot who is passionate about extreme sports. Originally from Datong Shanxi in China, he became a paraplegic in 2013 after suffering a traumatic spinal injury during an international paragliding competition. But within two years, River, whose birth name is Zhang Baoyu, was up in the air again, only this time with wheels. Today, he is known as China’s first wheelchair paragliding pilot.

RIVER’S COMEBACK FLIGHT

River drove about 200 miles over country roads from Datong to Beijing in his red Ford Raptor pick up. After he parked, spectators gathered and observed the truck’s back door open first and a folding wheelchair “pop” open to the ground. The truck was then backed up close to the wheelchair. The truck was turned off and the driver’s door swung open. River bent over his wheelchair, reaching to make the armrest and foot paddle the same height. He stretched out one arm to hold onto an armrest and the other arm to tightly grip the handle of the truck’s roof. He turned to position himself in the wheelchair and, at last, put on his artificial legs. It was July 18, 2015, and he was ready to fly again. “I will not stop flying as long as I have wings,” he said.

A SUDDEN FALL FROM THE SKY

It happened on August 9, 2013, during a test match on the Yili Nalati prairie. It was the last day of a paragliding competition, and the weather changed suddenly, making flying conditions unsafe. But River, ever determined, decided to fly anyway. “I was so stubborn that I wanted to finish flying,” he recalled. He thought to himself, “I wanted to fly to the plain, but I was too close to the mountain.” His other two teammates had dispatched a rescue parachute to land safely, but River didn’t have enough height and his sail failed to open in time. He crashed into the mountain and lay unconscious for a long period of time. When he awoke, his entire lower body was numb. After a two-hour wait, an emergency crew finally arrived and flew him to Urumqi Hospital. The diagnosis—a burst fracture of the thoracic spine, sections 1 and 12, with a dislocated nerve—meant River was now a paraplegic below the waist. This was particularly devastating to his family, for he and his wife were newlyweds and expecting their first child in three months.

Although time has sped by since his accident, River missed his flying sport; he missed his double wings; he missed gliding at low altitude and drawing a perfect arc in the sky.

River first discovered paragliding in 2006 and fell madly in love with the adventure sport. He came to love every minute of flying. Sometimes he hovered above, sometimes he tumbled, and other times he dove. “Just with a few pieces of cloth and a few cables, you can fly like a bird” he exclaimed. “It’s a fantastic feeling!” Flying brought so much joy to River that any concerns for safety outweighed the risks. Although his life was irrevocably changed, River remained light-hearted and joked about his condition, often calling himself an injured raptor.

RIVER’S DETERMINATION

River lay in the hospital for nearly 40 days. Once discharged, he was deep in debt. To pay for his surgery, he sold his car and all his sporting equipment. Despite his physical pain, he felt an even greater pressure to face the reality of taking care of his family and himself. He simply had to learn how to manage. With his strong sense of determination, he quickly learned how to take care of himself and to use a wheelchair to do whatever he needed to do—be it using the toilet or learning to drive again.

To make a living, he started an on-line business selling antiques. He also opened a photography shop and worked long days. His best part of the day, however, was always watching his young daughter play on his lap.

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One day his wheelchair broke, so he went to a repair shop and while waiting happened to meet an elderly man, and the two struck up a conversation. When he found out the man had been in his wheelchair for 45 years, he became distraught. This was the first time he had tears, even for himself, as he glimpsed his own future in 45 years. He realized then that he wanted to be defined by more than just his wheelchair, but how?

In July 2014, the first 500 km cross-country paragliding activities of Inner Mongolia were held in accordance with the sport’s requirements. The goal for all participants was to either paraglide or run to complete a 500-kilometer race. Many choose to fly, but River used his wheelchair to “run.”

A French coach noticed River’s passion and asked him, “River, do you want to fly? I can take you flying!” River was initially unwilling to fly, since his injury had occurred less than a year earlier, but his friends encouraged him to accept the invitation. Everyone helped carry him over to the hang gliding instructor. The coach sat in the driver’s seat. At the moment of take off, River felt the familiar freedom of flying: “At first, I felt excited!” he said. But the wind was very strong and the airflow unstable. The experience left him feeling uncomfortable and brought out his injured psychological self. After flying for a while, he asked the coach to land. He later told his friends: “I felt like a passenger, but next time I want to fly by myself!”

RIVER’S DREAM

Last June, River began to write his autobiography and twittered to his friends: “I want to return to the sky.” He called himself, Footless Raptor, and said: “If I’m on the ground, I can’t stop to look up at the sky, but I will be there one day! “

Not long thereafter, his old friend Leiming Zhao phoned and asked: “Do you want to fly?” Without hesitation, River responded, “Of course, I want to fly!” Once his friends learned of his wish, it became their dream as well. Despite the many risks of paragliding, their passion to fly had made them fearless.

So they ordered River a ‘flying wheelchair’ from Finland and carefully selected a special flying airfield. They all wanted to help River back to the sky. River felt strongly about pushing the boundaries of his disability. He and his friends also wanted to inspire and give hope to people with people with disabilities.

On July 18, 2015, River was at the National Paragliding base at YongAn Mountain in Hangzhou. The sky was blue and the sun shone brightly over the mountains after days of a torrential typhoon.

At 9:00 am, the host announced: “River can take off.” On the lawn, crowds of people eagerly watched River’s ascent. He smiled confidently in his fluorescent green flight suit as his flying team assisted him by opening his umbrella-flying seat. With his huge white paragliding sail rolled out over the green lawn, River positioned himself in his flight wheelchair.

“Coach Zhao, River is ready for takeoff.” River gently took a deep breath and said, “Go!” Assisted by his running coach, he thrust his white paragliding sail up over his head like a pair of huge wings. People cheered and cried as River flew upward into the sky.

At that moment, River felt completely weightless, his soul touched by the wind, mountains, cliffs, canyons, rivers and sky. While listening to the gentle sound of the wind blowing, he realized his dream had come true.

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by Huan Liu

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

Read more articles from the Kevin Nealon Issue.

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