Jessica Goh – the paragliding ace who sacrificed everything to soar

Jessica Goh - Singapore's first paragliding athlete at the Asian Games

02 Aug 2018

By Justin Kor

Up on a ridge top in Ranau, in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, paragliding pilot Jessica Goh prepares for a launch that will take her closer to the heavens.

Before experiencing paradise, she has to suffer a little first. Goh shoulders a huge harness that reaches down to her knees, along with a reserve parachute and other accessories. Altogether, the equipment can weigh up to 20kg, about a third of her body weight.

After checking that everything is safely secured, she sets off on a lumbering run down a slope headfirst into the wind. As she ups the pace, the huge canopy she is tethered to unfurls as it catches the current. Within moments, she is in the sky.

High above, she gets a bird’s eye view of the Malaysian countryside, appreciating its vast forests and flowing rivers. Paradise at last for her. “Just like sitting on a swing in the sky, with a feeling of peace,” as she describes it.

Finding solitude in the sky is one of the many reasons why this 39-year-old became a full-time paragliding athlete. It might not be a stretch to describe Goh as a prodigy. Three years after her first paragliding flight in 2012, she became the female champion in the 2015 Paragliding Accuracy World Cup.

She will also be making her Asian Games debut in Indonesia next month, where paragliding will be contested for the first time. She will be competing in two events – accuracy and cross country.

Accuracy – her pet event – requires competitors to land precisely on a coin-sized target marked on a 50cm-wide electronic pad. No easy feat, especially when you are approaching from a minimum height of 30m at speeds up to 25km/h – it is akin to landing on a piece of paper from a 10-storey building. The cross-country event sees participants competing to finish a course in the shortest possible time.

Accuracy – her pet event – requires competitors to land precisely on a coin-sized target marked on electronic pad.

So how did someone who was considered a paragliding novice three years ago come to represent Singapore?

Out of the office and into the sky

Her journey took off in 2012 when she accompanied a friend to learn the sport in Seremban, west Malaysia. She was apparently a natural, completing her maiden flight solo after her instructor saw that she could handle the paraglider on her own.

“I never had a phobia of heights. I could easily be at the top of a building, look down, and wouldn’t be scared,” says the self-confessed adventure sports enthusiast.

Her love for the sport really blossomed three months later when she attended a paragliding accuracy competition in Taiwan, and witnessed the world-class skills of the top paragliding athletes in Asia.

“The level of skill amazed me, how they had the confidence and ability to calmly pilot the glider in the way they want and fly directly to the target area. I was like ‘wow, I want to do this too’.”

Driven by a sheer single-minded desire to excel, she made drastic changes to her life. In the same year, she quit her job as an executive in a local company, and relocated to Sabah to train full time under a coach. Paragliding is not allowed in Singapore because of the restricted airspace.

To improve as quickly as possible, she was flying five to seven times a week in the first couple of years. In Sabah, away from friends and family, Goh had to overcome frequent hurdles on her own, whether it be financial or logistical issues like training and transportation.

“I was groping around in the dark, not knowing anything. Basically I figured it out along the way,” she says.

It was also an incredibly steep learning curve. She reveals that weather is the toughest aspect of the sport. As pilots relies on thermals – columns of warm rising air from the land – to gain altitude, basic meteorological knowledge like reading the clouds and wind flow over the land is required.

“Sometimes you can just spend a lot of money going somewhere, and if the weather is not cooperating, you simply don’t get to fly,” she explains.

Over the years, the costs have mounted. She estimates that she has spent between S$150,000 to S$200,000 of her savings. To save money, she sometimes uses outdated gliders to compete.

Her efforts have paid off when she became world champion at the Paragliding Accuracy World Cup in 2015, when she competed in a five-round series in Philippines; Malaysia, Serbia; China; and Bulgaria, emerging top among 34 female contestants. It is an achievement she describes as the biggest yet.

“I didn’t expect my progress to be so fast, being able to achieve results in high-level competitions after three years, when others only won after decades of experience.”

Now, she has her sights set on the upcoming Asian Games, where the medal hopeful is targeting a podium finish. “If everything works out fine, I have the skills and ability to put myself there.”

One thing is for certain though. There is no regret that she has given up so much for the sport.

“If you asked me back then in 2012 whether I knew how far I would go, I couldn’t have imagined this,” she says.

“I love the sport – this is what I want to do. The sacrifices are worth it. If it’s something that you really want, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”

Jessica (right) with fellow 2015 World Champion Matjaz Feraric (Slovenia)

Jessica will be competing in two events at the upcoming Asian Games. The paragliding competition will take place at Puncak Bogor in Jakarta.

Competition dates
Accuracy: 20 to 23 August, Cross country: 25 to 29 August

Competitors to look out for (Subject to selection by their respective Olympic Committees) Achievements
Nunnapat Phuchong (Thailand) 1st Place, Paragliding Accuracy World Cup 2018 Indonesia; 3rd Place, 1st FAI Asian-Oceanic Paragliding Accuracy Championship 2018
Chantika Chaisanuk (Thailand) 1st Place, 1st FAI Asian-Oceanic Paragliding Accuracy Championship 2018
Eka Nesti Wulansari (Indonesia) 2nd Place, Paragliding Accuracy World Cup 2018 Kazakhstan
Ike Ayu Wulandari (Indonesia) 1st Place, Paragliding Accuracy World Cup 2018 Kazakhstan
Rika Wijayanti (Indonesia)  1st Place, Paragliding Accuracy World Cup 2018 Cyprus