THE WOMAN WITH WINGS
Lebanese-Tunisian clinical consultant Mariam Bennani, 31, has more than 450 jumps under her belt. She says leaping out of a plane at 13,000 feet (3,962 metres) is a rush that has grown on her
“Being an Arab woman can be limiting. There are certain societal expectations such as getting married and raising a family. But for me it’s more important that I live my life to the full, rather than feel constrained or pressured by social norms. Perhaps this is because I’m an only daughter sandwiched between two brothers – I’ve always had a compelling urge to prove that I can be as strong and independent as my male siblings.
“Until two years ago I knew nothing about skydiving. When, in May 2011, my younger brother Amer announced he was doing a tandem skydive I was completely against the idea – it sounded too dangerous. Not only did he love it, he was so enthusiastic that he signed up to complete his Accelerated Freefall Course. After seeing his videos, he persuaded me to at least give it a go.
“I wanted to jump alone for my first time, instead of doing a tandem like my brother. I needed to pass a theoretical course at the SkyDive Dubai Desert Campus. Once that was completed I couldn’t wait to jump... I imagined it would be like flying – like being a superhero.
But as I squeezed into the plane that Saturday morning, the only first-time jumper with my instructor and six other experienced skydivers, my mouth went dry and I started to shake with fear. To let go of that open door and fall into 13,000 feet of howling wind with just a parachute strapped to my back defied all rules of basic survival. I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life.
“I had radio contact with my instructor and I only remember concentrating on what I needed to do to get down. Everything happened so quickly. There was relief at 6,000 feet when my parachute opened, but even after I landed, I felt no euphoria. I knew I had to jump again to overcome my fear.
I was still afraid on my second jump, but understanding how safe it is and having a better idea of what to expect, I started to relax and enjoy it. Gradually, from around my 30th jump, fear vanished entirely and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of pure freedom.
“In those 50 seconds of free fall before your parachute opens, any troubles, stresses or nuisances just vanish. In the sky I feel special, beautiful and more alive. And this feeling just keeps getting better with every jump.
“I’ve saved up enough to buy my own skydiving equipment, making the sport quite affordable. Besides, I’m not interested in spending money on going out or shopping; being at the SkyDive Dubai dropzone is my downtime. The atmosphere is welcoming, supportive and positive. My favourite start to the morning is when I can get a few jumps in before work. It never fails to leave me feeling fresh, charged and ready for the day.
“Lately I have completed enough jumps (over 200 in one year) to start experimenting with wingsuits. The suit is designed with greater surface area so free falling is longer and horizontal, like a controlled glide. It’s just like flying. Towards the end of last year I customised my own wingsuit – it’s neon-pink and fluffy. When it arrived I was so excited, but my mother wasn’t.
She said she would prefer to see me in a white dress. Gradually, seeing how happy I am, she is starting to understand. Lately she’s been very supportive, accepting that right now my only love is skydiving.”
SkyDive Dubai has world-class instructors and facilities for skydivers of all abilities. For more information visit its website, skydivedubai.ae.
Broken bike and body both mended, 42-year-old American Tonya Colson was one of the few women to complete last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. She says, despite her recent injuries, she can’t wait to repeat the experience
“I first came to dirt biking when I was 37, relatively late in life. Back home in Oregon I was a passionate mountain biker until my husband John gave me my first motorbike while we were dating. When John was hired as a pilot and we moved to Dubai, the first thing we did was get involved in the off-road motorcycling scene.
“In 2008, about a year after falling in love with riding dirt bikes, John and I went to watch the world-renowned pinnacle of rally driving, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (ADDC) – a five-day race over 2,000 kilometres of stunning desert. I was blown away by the scale and beauty of the Liwa desert and by the skill and bravery of the drivers.
“After witnessing that first ADDC, I haven’t missed one since. I never tire of the speed, excitement, dirt and grit. For the next three years I participated behind the scenes as a photographer but, after 2011, I decided to temporarily hang up my cameras and ride myself. I signed up for the 2012 race, one of the few women motorcyclists to do so.
“While on a training ride about a month before the race, my front brakes seized and I flew over the handlebars, landing on my shoulder and tearing all the ligaments. But I was determined, so with rest and physiotherapy I managed to complete the race. It was one of the toughest and most thrilling things I’ve accomplished.
“On day one of the ADDC, my bike – which was loaded with all the first aid equipment, water and fuel – weighed over 200 kilograms. The race started on low dunes, which were softer than I was used to. It wasn’t just my shoulder, but also my back that was becoming painful from pushing my heavy bike each time I got stuck.
Then, at about the 50-kilometre mark, I had my first crash on the down slope of a dune, right in a blind spot of the racing path. Unable to lift my bike, I had to quickly drag it out of the way. The first car through came within inches of my bike, the next ran over part of my rear wheel.
The sweeper team at the back came to my rescue and that night my ever-supportive husband replaced parts on my bike while I rested my injuries and my ego – a pattern that continued throughout the race.
“By day three my shoulder wasn’t much better but I was starting to enjoy the challenge. The remoteness was invigorating. I was often airborne over ridges and dunes and when I did manage to land rubber-side down, concentration would make way for a sheer rush of adrenaline. But it was never easy. In the harsh midday light it’s hard to read the contours of the sand and it’s easy to miscalculate drops.
The final straw came towards the end of the race on day five when I hit soft sand and flew over the handlebars, landing on my face. By then I’d lost count of the crashes I’d had. I could immediately feel my nose bleeding and swelling.
“With grit and determination, I persisted to the end, finishing in floods of tears – not from pain but because the sense of achievement was so overwhelming.
Although my performance wasn’t as strong as I’d hoped, I finished 54th out of 73 starters and I was the highest placed woman on a motorcycle. “I’ve since had surgery on my shoulder and nine months of rehabilitation. I feel that I have some unfinished business out there in the Empty Quarter. As soon as registration opens for the 2014 rally I’m signing up. This time I’m completing it with John at my side.”
To follow this year’s ADDC, visit abudhabidesertchallenge.com. To see pics of Tonya in action, visit tonyacolsonphotography.com.
QUEEN OF THE WIND
Mother-of-two Astrid Petracchi, 35, from Austria, is a kitesurfer. She says she’s happiest ten metres in the air, braving the elements
“Growing up in landlocked Austria, I’ve always been drawn to the ocean. The promise of living close to the sea brought me to Dubai in 2001 to work as a stewardess. When I wasn’t flying, I was at the beach. I noticed some guys having a lot of fun on surfboards powered by huge kites. One of the pilots I flew with was a kitesurfing instructor, so I started lessons. Learning was often frustrating, but loving a challenge, I persevered.
“I’ll never forget the first time I put the board on my feet and had my first 100-metre run. It was a small taste of freedom and I was hooked. A year later, I had mastered the sport enough to be able to complete my International Kiteboarding Organisation (IKO) instructor’s course in Egypt.
“Kitesurfing is a cross between windsurfing and wakeboarding, but without the cumbersome equipment. With the right conditions it’s possible to go as fast as 40 kilometres per hour, and to jump up to 20 metres above the water level powered by nothing but the wind. It’s an incredible buzz. The thing I love most is freestyle kiting, or tricks.
To be successful you need as much air and height as conditions allow. With the kite fully powered anything is possible – forward and backward flips, board grabs, spins, kite loops – I have crashed many times and, yes, it hurts. But I always get back up and try again. The reward is when it all comes together – the rush of landing a perfect trick stays with me for days.
“I’ve been into horse-riding since I was a small child, and I especially love jumping. So I guess it’s harnessing the speed and power of nature that I love most – whether it be a horse or the wind. These days I compete in showjumping and I also teach riding to people with disabilities. I never tire of nurturing the very special bond that exists between horses and people with special needs.
“On one of my trips to the stables, soon after completing my kitesurfing instructor’s course, I met an Argentinean polo player, Nicolas. He started to teach me polo in return for kitesurfing lessons. Two years later, in August of 2006, we were married. Around the same time, I left my stewardess job to concentrate on my own businesses working as an advanced therapeutic riding instructor, as well as instructing and distributing kitesurfing equipment.
“I have two daughters now, aged five and two, and I’ve never viewed pregnancy or motherhood as a reason to stop doing what I love – as long as it’s safe. I taught kitesurfing up to the day before both girls were born. From a very early age they came with me to the beach while I gave lessons.
“When I’m not teaching, my husband and I take turns – one kiting while the other plays with the girls. One of our priorities as parents is to instil an innate love and respect for nature and the outdoors in our girls. We figure example is the best way to lead.
“A highlight of our annual family calendar is the summer months we spend on a remote kitesurfing beach in Brazil. The wind consistently blows at 20 to 25 knots every day. It’s here that I really push myself, going faster, jumping higher.
“There are a growing number of competitive kitesurfing events in this region. Last month Dubai held the Sunset Mall Kitesurfing and SUP Challenge and this month KitePro Abu Dhabi is holding kitesurfing championships. Kitesurfing is really taking off as a sport for women.
At least a third of my students are female. There is something almost meditative about being out there with just a kite and the elements. At times I feel so elegant, like I’m flying. Other times I feel empowered, like a raging bull. It’s my ultimate me-time.”
For more information on kitesurfing lessons, tips and equipment visit shamalkitesurfing.com or kitesurf.ae.