Klaudia Bulgakow, currently the world’s third best female paraglider, tells us the story of her life as a pro pilot and all that comes with it.

I was totally into motorcycling at 17. I wanted to speed on the streets of Warsaw all the time. Around that time, a new neighbour moved into my building. He was a motorcyclist and a paraglider. He told my concerned mother that biking was far too dangerous on Polish streets, and that I should try paragliding instead.

Mom was super thrilled.

So then I got my first standard tandem flight. I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought, why should I spend so much money on something so boring? But after spending the summer at the airfield, playing with the glider, I decided to give it a try and fly by myself.

When I did my first solo flight, I lost my head and heart to the sport. It felt so amazing that I wanted it all! I wanted to learn how to thermal, fly cross country, I wanted to compete and get on the national team to fly in big international events! All of it straight after my first solo flight.

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Klaudia flying over rocky ridges in Ager, Spain. Photo © Jara Sijka

In the beginning it was very hard. I come from a sport background, having trained nine years in ice skating and four years in tennis. I knew that if you want to become good you need to work hard. Back in 2000, 2001 there were just 20 guys competing in Poland. We had 3-4 guys going for a World Cup and I was the only competing girl at the time. It was not easy because there wasn’t any program of preparation, no coaches, no mentors. I needed to learn alone. But I was always lucky to find great people who helped me as much as they could.

On being World Champion

I think becoming a world champion is a goal for any competitive athlete pursuing any sport. I have been a Polish Female Champion since 2011. The World Championships in 2013 came down to the last task between France’s Seiko Fukuoka and me. I have no idea what happened, because she was flying very well. I knew I needed to attack to win that day. I was on fire. It worked out.

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Klaudia grew up in Warsaw with her mother and grandparents. “My family was a totally normal Polish family. I was the one crazy about outdoors. I saw Vertical Limit and wanted to climb, I saw The Big Blue and wanted to deep dive! I was always into action, to run, to bike. Always outside.” Photo © Jara Sijka

On European Championships

I started the competition with a low ranking. I did three bad tasks straight in the beginning that put me in the 8th position. So I thought I have nothing else to lose and decided to push my limits as much as I could. Doing this I managed to win 7th task in overall (man and woman). The feeling of entering the goal when there is no one is amazing and addictive at the same time. I became the second woman in history winning a single task in an overall category – after Petra Slivova in 2005. I know what am I capable of and it makes me so hungry for more. After many more adventures I finished the competition with third position.

Klaudia Bulgakow Fact File
Full Name – Klaudia Bulgakow
Date of Birth – 5th March 1982
Nationality – Polish
Current World Ranking – 3
Number of years competing – 13 years
Best career performance – World Champion 2013, 2nd-time European Champion 2016
Worst career performance – Too many to list
Favourite exercise – Burpees
Favourite food – Thai curry
Favourite places to fly – Saint Andre Les Alpes (France), Roldanillo (Colombia), Krusevo (Macedonia)
Role model(s) – Anybody who loves life, shares joy of it, is doing a lot and gives back
What are you training for next
– World Championships in Feltre, Italy

On sponsors

Athletes like us survive on sponsors. I’m very grateful to Lukoil for being with me for the past six years now. They stayed with me during the bad times, and that’s pretty nice of them. For sure there is some pressure to keep the brands visible. I do my best to run several projects every year. Without them and my previous sponsors and partners I could never have achieved what I did.

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The 34-year-old is a full-time professional competition paraglider. “I am one of the few pilots in the world who gets enough support to be able to fly full on all year long,” she says. Photo © Jara Sijka

On surviving bad times

I was touting for the top title during the World Championship in 2009 in Mexico. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really my competition. On top of this, Swiss team member Stefan Schmoker, who was world #3 at the time, was killed in an accident during one of the tasks. My world fell apart. I started questioning my own ability. I was scared of flying for a whole year. So depressed. I considered quitting very seriously.

But in 2010, when I decided to give it one last shot, I realized that my love for flying is stronger that any fear. I made a recovery plan for myself. Redesigned all my goals and ambitions. Changed focus. That experience has made me stronger than I ever was. It made me a better competitor, a better person and helped me win the World Championship in 2013.

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When she is not flying, she’s skiing, “I love freeriding. I love powder. I need my powder days to fly better.” Photo © Jara Sijka

On keeping fit

Paragliding is more of a mental game than a physical one. But from my experience, if you stay physically fit your brain works sharper, you can stay focused for a longer time. So I work out a lot. I run, do some fitness, physiotherapy for mobilisation and posture correction to maintain better energy flow. I go skiing and snowboarding in the winters. I hike to fly and to ski. I do my best to stay fit in my brain, so I never stop researching on mental tricks to compete and fly better.

On traveling

Paragliding is a sport where we chase the best weather to fly and compete. We travel the world for this. This sport gave me a chance to realise one of my biggest childhood dreams – to learn about the world. So I never just fly in a competition and go back home. I stay longer, see things, meet local people and their culture. I feel so gleeful about this lifestyle and for all the friends I made and the people I met on the way.

Future Plans

I plan to keep competing for as long as I can. My focus for now is on the World Championships in Feltre, Italy this July. I want to share my experiences with the world to help them fly safer and better. I plan to start a career in public speaking too. A film about my life will release later in May.

Read more about Klaudia on her website: klaudiabulgakow.com

Feature Image © Jara Sijka

This story was part of the Opening Features section of The Outdoor Journal Spring 2016 edition of the print magazine.

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