NOVA X-Alps Athlete Portrait
Nick Donini on a special mission during the X-Alps 2023
Please tell us how you developed as a paraglider pilot – from the beginning until today?
I started due to my father. He always was and is still crazy about paragliding. He was World Champion once, European Champion twice and more. He took me on my first tandem flight at the age of three. So, paragliding has always been part of my life. When I was nine or ten years old, I was allowed to start ground handling. We live in Molveno at the beautiful Lago di Molveno and everybody who has been there knows that it is a great place to play with your wing in the afternoon Bora wind.
Falling in love with paragliding so early was a bit strange in my relation to the other boys in town: they were playing football; I was playing with my wing. Actually, I felt a bit embarrassed, because at that age you want to be part of your peer group. But I liked ground handling so much, that kept doing it just by myself. I know that I am a bit introverted and rather shy – that might depend on each other…
At the age of 11, I was allowed by my father to do my first solo flight. I somehow knew it before this flight, so it was only a confirmation: this is it!
Were your parents scared when you flew?
(laughs) One may easily think that I must have been pretty crazy, me flying being so young. But my mother was always more worried about my dad than about me. Even today, he is still crazy and always going for it. Of course, he is really a brilliant pilot and has never had any problems, but sometimes I am scared when I see him flying…
In 2012, I was finally allowed to do my license. Shortly after I did my first competition – and I won. To everybody’s surprise, I became Italian Champion. I owe this a lot to my teachers and mentors. Besides my dad, it was Aaron Durogati and Joachim Oberhauser, both world-class pilots, nice guys and good friends.
Acro was also always there. I was watching videos on YouTube and just tried it. At that time with a normal wing, just Helicos and other easy tricks, nothing serious.
What does paragliding mean to you today?
I don’t really know (laughs) … good question. It would say it is just part my life. It is not everything but a substantial part.
When did you first think: I want to take part in the X-Alps?
The first time I thought it would be cool, was in 2015 when Peter Gebhard was competing, another South Tyrolian pilot. But the X-Alps seemed to be something like absolutely impossible to me. It felt unreachably and so far away! But then I did some local hike & fly races, the Ironfly and the Dolomiti Superfly. So, in autumn 2020 I took all my courage and I applied for it. Actually I was not really serious with my application, as I felt I was not good enough yet. So, when they accepted me, I was very surprised.
Why do you think you were selected as a participant?
I don’t know for sure about 2021. I think I was reasonably well known for my competition results. But as a matter of fact, I was not doing so well at the other hike & fly races. And my physical fitness also left lots of room for improvement. This time, I assume it is my flying in general, my experience from the previous edition, and also the documentary that might have helped. Red Bull obviously appreciates such efforts.
Generally, I got the impression, that they put a very strong focus on safety! They want to make sure you can say ‘no’. The X-Alps are definitely dangerous, so “safety first” is a clear must!
What is your goal for this year’s edition?
My big dream is to reach the finish line. This would be absolutely amazing! If I look back at 2021, maybe top 15 is a realistic goal. I am definitely fitter than last time, we invested more time into planning and strategy, and I can rely on more experience.
Please tell us about your preparations. What exactly are you doing?
This is top-top secret! (laughing out loudly…). Actually, one of my supporters, Marco Recchia, is physiotherapist and personal trainer. He made a good training plan for me, sometimes on a day-by-day basis and sometimes weekly. I inform him on WhatsApp about my impressions how I feel, and he then adapts the plan constantly. We worked a lot on endurance, sometimes really long training session at very low intensity – a bit like a Diesel truck. But we also put in short, high-intensity sessions, which can be really painful.
Concerning the flying I have not been practicing anything in particular for the X-Alps. The majority of my flying is test-flying NOVA prototypes together with Fabian Gasteiger and we mostly do top-landings anyway. So that helps. But other than that, there was nothing specific.
Together with my team, we intensified the route planning. Certainly, there are several “must-know-well-areas”, because there are multiple route options and you can easily loose time there, for example around Montblanc or from Fiesch to Niessen. Achental to Lermoos will also be a challenge because in Germany we are now only allowed to exclusively use official take-off sites. I often play with Condor, a great glider plane flight simulations app, programmed by NOVA Pilots Team mate Uros Bergant (www.condorsoaring.com). It is a very helpful planning tool when the weather is bad, particularly beneficial in areas than you don’t know at all or only a bit.
Originally, we also intended to do some on-location route scouting. We had planned to go to Switzerland, but the weather was so bad. Finally, we decided not to go.
On the organisational side we worked a lot on the logistic part of the race, trying to have everything we need, but still be light. Sleeping, food, gear in general – having everything in the smartest way possible. Furthermore, we took more care for best possible communication: radio, phone, internet connection, etc. With the food we found a very good solution: pre-cooked meals. They are vacuumed and we put them in the fridge of the campervan. So, I get exactly what I need – proteins, carbohydrates, fat, minerals etc. I also get what I like. My family runs Hotel Olympia in Molveno and the chef of our hotel is doing it for me. He is such a nice guy and great cook.
How many hours a week do you put into the different things on your to-do-list?
Training from 8 to 10 hours per week. Organisation not so much, one meeting per week, totalling in 3 hours per week. Flying is my work. I fly every flyable day. Strategy and route planning adds up to maybe 4 hours.
How do you rate yourself as a pilot, endurance athlete and alpinist, as tactician and mentally?
As a pilot maybe 7/10, still learning. As an athlete maybe 5/10, strategy 8/10 and mental strength in the race 8/10.
What was good in the last race and where was room for improvement?
Good… (thinking) difficult to say. We really had a great team. The spirit was high all the time, even in difficult and challenging situations. Besides, I did some really good flights and my physical preparation was not so bad. And improvement…? Well, basically everything can be improved. Always! Communication, planning, strategy, physical preps and so on…
What are your weak points?
Last time I had sometimes orienteering problems in unknown places. That’s why we went more into details of the route planning. Other than that, I would say that I don’t have any particular weak points.
Please tell us about your support team. Who belongs to it? Who does what?
Fiorenzo Graziano, called Fiore, is the support team captain and also logistic runner. Marco Recchia is my personal trainer and an exceptionally blessed physiotherapist. Then, there is Michele Boschi as our strategic meteo-guru. Sasha Weller also helps as a runner supporter.
Finally, there should be Marco Diliberto, who was part of the 2021 team. We were close friends before the race – and very best friends after the X-Alps. It went so well with this crew, that we wanted to do it together again in 2023. Last September, we were awarded at the film festival at the Coupe Icare for “Vulnerability” and Marco went there too. We were proud and happy! On the way home, he died in a tragic mountain accident. It was devastating for all of us! So, the X-Alps 2023 are something very, very special for our team: we will race for Marco!
How well do you know each other?
It’s the same crew as last time, except that Sasha was added. We all know each other really well and we are close friends. I have no doubts that it will work again very, very well. Even though some of them live quite far away, I can rely 100 % on them! They are such good guys!
How important do you think is experience?
Experience is very, very, very important! Maybe it amounts to 80 % of the race. The X-Alps are on a much higher level than all other hike & fly races. It is 10 times bigger than all of them. Just look at the kilometres… As a result, the level of pilots and athletes is exceptionally high. They are the best!
Five or six pilots are maybe good enough to win: Chrigel Maurer, Maxime Pinot, Aaron Durogati (if the weather is good), Patrick von Känel, maybe Damian Lacaze. All others are there to achieve their personal goals…
How important is the equipment?
The equipment matters a lot, but not that much in terms of the ultimate performance, but more in the way how you feel with it. During the race you will face very strong conditions, you need to be comfortable with your gear and trust your wing. This might make a major difference in very bad conditions. Option A) is: you can still fly and feel good. Option B) is: you can still fly, but don’t feel well anymore and it you may make bad decisions. And C) you don’t dare to fly anymore and just decide to land. Generally, this well-feeling matters more than the highest performance. Otherwise, we would fly ultralight-built CCC-wings. This is also why I had chosen NOVA in the previous edition and am happy to fly the XENON again. My harness, the ARTUS Race, is really light, aerodynamic and comfortable.
What are you most looking forward to? What are you afraid of?
The nice thing will be again the adventure itself together with good friends. After all the hours of planning and thinking, we are now looking forward to hearing the starting shot and be in the race.
Personally, I am certainly afraid of disappointing my supporters, fans, family and friends. They invested so much in me and gave me so much. I definitely have to admit that the fear of not meeting their expectations puts quite a bit of pressure on me. Usually, I don’t think about the race itself, but here I feel outside pressure.
On the subject of risk management, how do you deal with wanting to do as well as possible at the X-Alps and yet not putting yourself in excessive danger?
(Laughing) Hmm… I think in general in the paragliding world you have to be humble. Mother nature is so much stronger than us. You have to be conscious about your skills and your experience and find the right balance in relation to the conditions. What comes on top: in the X-Alps you also get mentally extremely tired. You are not lucid anymore and have to trust your supporters.
If you are there for winning, you have to take a lot of risk. If you are there just to have a good time and a big adventure, you are on the safer side and have to trust your instincts. Otherwise, your risks are too high! Look, what is more important: Your life or the race?
In any kind of paragliding comp your put yourself in danger, but luckily Red Bull is putting an increasing focus on making the race safer. I appreciate the new rules, that cloud flying will be really sanctioned or simply taking a foolish amount of risk while landing on streets etc. It is good what they do now – but it could be even more.
Red Bull puts a lot of emphasis on the athletes' social media activities. Isn't that pretty stressful?
Eehhh, I actually don’t feel this pressure from Red Bull. Luckily, my team, friends and family take of the social media activities – and I can focus on the race.
Let's talk about money: how much do you think the X-Alps participation will cost you?
Last time we spend 15.000 Euros – including the movie team for “Vulnerability”. This year we will spend much less. We won’t produce a movie and luckily, we own our campervans. Not having to rent them saves a substantial amount of money.
Was / is it difficult for you to find sponsors?
Finding a sponsor that pays money is generally difficult. The tourist authorities of “Adamello / Paganella” are my biggest sponsor. I am very happy that they continue my sponsoring since many years. It has turned into a real partnership!
For me personally approaching a potential sponsor is difficult. I am a bit shy and not so extroverted. It is generally hard for me to approach other people.
Are you in contact with other participants?
There is a WhatsApp-group that includes all athletes and this is really helpful. We discuss safety and route issues – and Red Bull is really willing to listen. Other than that, I am in occasional contact with other athletes.
Thank you very much for the interview, Nick. We wish you and your team much success and lots of fun – and above all, that you stay healthy and cheerful.