“You don’t have that many chances to do things you love” – Interview with Alexander Polli

Alexander Polli“Crazy dude!” is what he thought when he saw the first wingsuit flying video. Later, he made his dream come true and now is that crazy dude himself. He even flew through a rock hole. One could call him crazy for that and rightly so. Since that flight he is somehow famous in his sports. But what he should rather be described with, is: inspiring. Since his childhood, his passion for sports as well as for the unusual lead him to one of the most deeply engaged and adventurous ways of using lifetime – flying through the air – a passion that was influenced and supported by his parents, too. At the International Mountain Summit in October in Brixen he held an emotional and rousing speech, explaining what makes up this passion, how wingsuit-flying works and why this is his life. He won the hearts of most of the audience within the first minutes. There I had the lucky opportunity to have an interview with Alexander. Read here, why his sports is not extreme, but rather an attitude of living life with full force. You went to Sauna before, and in your talk you said that you often do to yourself good things like yoga or meditation. Is your sports a part of that, that is, trying to reach a state of good life or happiness? Potentially yes. It’s the same, I think, in really being in contact with your body. Flying with a wingsuit is one of the most amazing things you can possibly do with your body. You know, swimming, running, snowboarding – all these things are great, but literally moving your body flying through the air is really one of the most incredible things I can do with my body. And yoga again is a focus on the body, it’s really putting you in contact with it. Often we spend our lives in trying to make money, to then buy a ferrari and so forth and we don’t take care of our body – we don’t stretch, we don’t exercise… But this is the greatest instrument you’ll ever own! You will never get another instrument as amazing and as complex and as able as your body. And I think a lot of people in general after they get out of some sort of “childhood”, when they stop playing and they sit down to start working they really stop doing things with their body, using it in whatever way they can. And I think, that’s potentially a mistake, because, as you know, we have one life and are lucky enough to have this able body. Most of us take it for granted, but some people are born with a disability and don’t have the possibility to do certain things. So, yes I think it’s also a kind of appreciation of the fact that I have hands and the like and I can walk around. You mentioned in your talk that you have been practicing other sports in earlier times, for instance in your childhood your father took you with him to go scuba-diving and you did snow-boarding and skiing, last of which you were quite good at. I spent for twenty years of my life two months a year on a boat, so that’s three years and four months. I have more scuba-dives probably than sky-dives. I spent months and months and months and months swimming around in the water, if it’s spear-fishing or diving. So that’s really some sort of slow-motion flying, the principle works in a similar way. And I did a lot of go-karting and moto-cross. You know when I was seven, up to ten years. At ten I was junior Swiss Champion in downhill skiing and then I started snowboarding, around 11, 12. At 14, I was picked up by sponsors and 14 to 16 years old, I was riding for Santa Cruz. I was junior Swiss Champion and Junior Italian Champion. I think that the scuba-diving is similar in, how you move your body in the air, it can be compared. In high-speed moto-cross, or even more, street-bike as well, you’re getting used to the visuals. When you’re going really fast and taking tight turns, see how the bush is coming, how the tree is coming and by that you’re getting used to those visual aspects. And then mixing in the snowboarding, when you would usually snowboard down a mountain and find your own line, you do a turn there and you go down there and there, it’s up to you and up to your imagination. When I put those three things together I feel like I’ve been training all my life to do this wingsuit-flying and to fly down a mountain like I do, because the scuba-diving helps in moving my body around, the moto-cycle helps me, when I’m flying towards trees and other objects coming up and to see, know how far away I am from them, so being used to the visuals. And the snowboarding gives me the kind of creativity of flying down the mountain, trying to carve in between the trees instead of always flying straight. So it’s not to be understood as if you did a lot of sports and then there came one point in time when you had seen wingsuit-flying and you quit all the other sports and changed, but rather to understand it like if you had been doing this step continuing from all the other steps before or all the other skills that you have learned, doing all these other sports, or maybe to understand it as a way that you went, doing all these sports and connecting all these skills and capabilities to finally synthesize it, to forge it into this. Yeah, I think it is pretty much exactly what you said, or very close to it. You can’t say I just went wingsuit-flying, because first of all, in order to be able to do this very precise and as safely as I can, I did a 1500 skydives in two years, before I had my first basejump. When I did my first basejump it was (claps into hands 2x), no problem here, you know? I was on that mountain and I know that even if I slip on exit the air comes and I know how to fly, so then I can turn around and fly away from the mountain. In my mind it was not a deadly stunt. I was more looking at the others and knowing these people can do it, I’ve done all the right training, you know I’ve put all my cars right in order so now “Yes. I. Can. Do.” If you would have asked me, when I was 18, or 15, if I would be flying through a mountain I would tell you (laughs): “No! You’re crazy! I can’t do that because I’m too afraid” or, you know what I mean, “I don’t have the skill”, or this and that. You know, when I first saw a wingsuit-video, I thought that was fake. I didn’t think it was real. It looked like the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I thought that was CineMaxx, no I thougt it was Hollywood. And then I did a bit of research and  I saw it was real. Some crazy dude… (laughs) I didn’t understand some crazy dude was doing this. It looked like the most amazing thing ever and I’ve always wanted to do these amazing things, if it’s skiing or snowboarding or it’s scuba-diving, riding a motorcycle. I’ve always been attracted to this passion and this love. I have this passion and this love. And then I was thinking: “Could I ever do this?”. I was thinking I’m too afraid, you know, „I’m too afraid to be able to do this… but why can he do it, and why can’t I? But wait a second, we both have two legs and we both have two arms“. Actually, we both have exactly the same things, by that, being able to overcome that mental and emotional obstacle, to then being able to put all these skills that I have gathered at a younger age, to then really dedicate myself and to achieve what I did. What velocity are you actually gaining in wingsuit flying? Me, being a bit of a bigger guy and also my style of flying tends to be faster, I’m always kind of fast, I think I’m doing between 220 and 250. What I’ve always been wondering about is if breathing wouldn’t be really difficult at such an enormous speed… Oh no, not at all. You wouldn’t think so, absolutely not. I mean, you can try it, if you put your head out of the window. When you’re driving the car or someone else is driving the car and you put your head out of the window when you’re going 200 or 250 the wind is going to blast but you can breath just fine. Practically just the idea that there’s so much wind is just like a shock. But breathing is absolutely okay. Something that I feel I do in some very specific, technical flights, is, I can feel myself breathing while I’m flying. So I don’t think about anything else, when I’m flying and I’m just in the moment. But sometimes I catch myself with (breathes loudly through the nostrils) while I’m flying. You know, that means I just relax my body and center myself. Like a meditation technique… Exactly, some sort of meditation technique! I want to put up a topic which was brought up at the IMS discussion panel on the extreme, too. You mentioned that Victor Kovats, the guy who had a deadly accident in an wingsuit event in China in October, was your friend. Yes, he was my very very big friend. He was like my brother, I loved him very much. A beautiful, beautiful human being. And a rare, very rare human being. That much energy. That much life. Yeah, I saw a photo of him on the internet, he had crazy cool hair. Yeah, crazy hair. He had a very… beautiful, beautiful character. He had a big tattoo on his chest, in big orange letters, saying “fuck normal life”. You know, he had another tattoo in the back of his neck, that said “shit happens” (laughs). So, you know, I’m not religious but I do believe that we go somewhere, our energy is captured. Because our body might be meat, but what our soul is, what the individual is, what our energy is, is something that mathematically by Einsteins Law can’t just disappear, so I believe from some point of view, he went home and he was with us yesterday when I said “fuck normal life” in front of 500 people (laughs). And “fuck normal life” – is that what you think of normal life, too? Noooo, that’s not what I think of normal life, I just liked the tattoo (laughs). I just thought it was very funny, you know. I think he thought it was very funny, you know. What is normal? You know, what is normal? So that’s up to interpretation. But what maybe you can tell, is, if other athletes in your sports think or feel about life that way, that is, a way of trying to escape normal life? I don’t think ‘escape’ is at all the right word. I think it’s rather grabbing life by the horns, you know, acutally, it’s embracing life, not letting life slip away. If I’m afraid of something – I’m afraid of dying, yes – but what I’m more afraid of, is letting this life fly away, slip away. I’ve never spoken to an old person that has told me “aah, life went by so slowly” (laughs). No! Every older person I’ve ever met always said, “oh guys you better live it up, ‘cos this life goes »pfooh« (gesture for rushing over), and it’s gone”! I’m 28 now and it feels like yesterday I was 15. And apparently the older you get, the faster it goes. So if you have the possibility or the chance to do something you love, or, you know, to fly, like I have the possibility to, I would be scared to death that I wouldn’t have the courage to go into this. So it’s not at all escaping normal life. It’s actually really trying to make the most of it, embracing the possibility to be able to live a life of this kind. If you have something that you or something that you could love, you might not even know yet, but what captures your imagination of the beginning, but you’re afraid of this and that, I think you’re crazy not to go for it, because in that life you don’t have that many chances to do things you love. It’s not like everyday we find somebody or something you love, you know. I mean it happens there and there and there. And this doesn’t always have to be in a physical way. This can also be transmitted in emotional manner, saying you’re in a bar and there’s a girl you really like, but you’re afraid to go and say hello, you know. Yes, you can go over there and she can tell you “Uh, go away, you’re a loser” and then you would walk away and you feel a little bit sad. But! You could also go over there and maybe she is the woman of your life, maybe you get married, maybe you will get children, maybe you’ll have the best sex of your life that night, who knows? You will never find out if you don’t go over there. So I recommend people to go for it. I really recommend people to go for it. The company Red Bull has often been criticized for focussing its marketing activites on extreme sports and by that supporting people risking their lifes. This criticism has also been brought up yesterday at the panel. Can you share this criticism? I don’t have any contracts, you know. I’m not an Red Bull athlete or anything so it sounds like I’m speaking on their behalf, but I have friends that are Red Bull athletes and I know other people that are Red Bull athletes and I think that the possibilities a company like that gives these people to become the magicians they are of whatever sports they’re doing, compared to having the kid needing to work for 8 months a year, only being able to climb or run for 4 months a year, saying, “you are a supertalent, you are like this, now, we believe in you, go and live your wildest dreams, we believe in this lifestyle, we believe in this spirit, and here! we support you with cash and food and travel money, and go and do the most ridiculous things” – I think it’s amazing what they do! I think it’s very sad that there’s a bad press about that. They have I guess something like 500 athletes, they are able to let them live their wildest dreams, if it’s wakeboarding every day or surfing every day or skateboarding every day. I mean, come on! Which other company fuels such a spirit, you know what I mean? Most companies fuel only sports like soccer or stuff like that, you know. So I think Red Bull is absolutely fantastic and I wished there were more companies that focus so much on these extreme ways of life, if it’s climbing or paragliding or skiing, you know, distance running, skateboarding, bmx, motocross… And: I would like to add that whether they would push, it was said Red Bull pushes the athletes. No, no, no! You know, these athletes do it all by themselves. And if Red Bull wasn’t there, they would be getting the coins out of their piggy bag. You know what I mean? To be able to afford to go into these things, that actually Red Bull just helps them with. You said that you yourself avoid sponsoring. Why? No, I don’t avoid sponsoring, I just haven’t signed any contracts. I don’t feel the right ones have come up properly, yeah. If I do want one, I do want something that really allows me to work with my creativity and so forth. I don’t want my things to be a stunt. I want it to be a piece of art or a form of self expression, you know. And how do you finance your flights? I play poker quite good. You play poker? I guess, that’s not very common. And that works? Yes. Sure, but I’ve also lost some money, particlarly in the beginning. But then I bought a book and learnt about it and really got it managed. So now before summers I earn money for the summer season, and before winter, I earn money for the winters season. In your talk you showed some videos of you flying and tried to explain how it works, and THAT it works to fly safely. This seems to be a hard work of conviction, since people are skeptical and the media often seems to be just waiting for a next accident. Don’t you sometimes have the impression that this is a struggle which is already lost? No, it’s not that I’d settle out a fight, and I don’t want to convince people. I do not care so much if people are skeptical. And I think they are skeptical, because it’s such a new sports. People always are skeptical if there’s something new. If you look at climbing for example: if there’s a deadly accident, it’s pretty normal, it’s accepted. But if there’s an accident in wingsuit-flying there’s always a loud media outcry. It happens to everything that’s new, like a taboo. Yeah, and I think that’s the case with all the extreme sports. It’s like a taboo and people are not very open for it. But I really do this sports for myself and I started making videos because I wanted to share my joy and to be able to express myself. And, if people are skeptical, I actually don’t give a f***. After the IMS discussion, a very amazing video of your mother who always supported you in realizing your dreams, was shown. She bought you your first wingsuit, is that right? No, a parachute, she helped me buying my first parachute. What role does she, or in general, your parents play, now? They have always supported me in the way I lived my life, living my dreams and they still do. And as I said, I have learnt very very much by my father, especially diving, but they have supported me with all the other stuff, too. Don’t you sometimes have any bad feelings or a bad conscience regarding the dangers? No. They know the way I’m doing this sports. I do it very conscious, very rationally, very planned, so they trust me. And for this reason, I don’t have a bad conscience or something like that. What are your next projects? I have some new flights in my mind, some very technical flights, but I can’t tell so much about it yet. But there’s a lot of stuff I wanna do. I wanna do more climbing, because I like that, too, although in the flying sports, this is for me the rather exhausting and enervating part, that is, getting high up. And it always appears to me more dangerous than flying, actually. And I have lots of respect towards all those climbers. But I wanna go surfing as well… uh, there is so much that you can do! That’s true. So keep going, Alexander and thank you for the interview.

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