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Kayaker, paraglider Macie Brendlinger on managing risk, passion for extreme sports

Macie Brendlinger, a sophomore nursing major at Westminster College, has a zest for thrill, with paragliding and whitewater kayaking being her adrenaline-inducing mechanisms of choice.

Brendlinger said she grew up whitewater rafting with her family in her hometown of Carbondale, Colorado and has always loved the river. 

Brendlinger started her college career Fall 2019 at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, which is also where she first started kayaking before she transferred to Westminster College Jan. 2021.

“[The University of Puget Sound has] a really good whitewater program for kayaking, and I [thought] I might as well get into it because I love the river so much,” Brendlinger said. “It was also a more accessible outdoor sport to me, living in Washington, instead of driving two hours to go skiing.”

Brendlinger said she loves to be a beginner in general and to try new things all the time. 

Last September, Brendlinger got her P-2 paragliding certification in Bozeman, Montana. 

The P-2 paragliding certification attests that a pilot, novice at this point, has learned about turns, maneuvering their glider, and knows how to plan and pick where they’ll land, according to the US Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association ratings and skills introduction webpage.

P-2 certified pilots have flown from higher ground under supervision and demonstrate confidence when handling the glider in flight, according to the webpage.

“The first summer [I met my boyfriend], I drove all of his shuttles for [paragliding flights] and I was like, ‘Screw this! I don’t want to be on the ground, I want to be [in the air] doing what he’s doing,’” Brendlinger said.

Brendlinger said kayaking and paragliding are all about progression for her. Seeing progress in her own abilities, especially mental, is something that keeps her coming back to these extreme sports. 

“I feel like [kayaking and paragliding] are two sports where, mentally, […] the progression is never going to end,” Brendlinger said. “As long as I’m paragliding throughout my entire life, as long as I’m kayaking, [my progression is] never going to end.”

A whitewater kayaker paddles through a large rapid while water crashes over the bow of the kayak.
Macie Brendlinger, sophomore nursing major at Westminster College, charges through a rapid on the Main fork of the Salmon River in Idaho July 2021. Brendlinger grew up whitewater rafting with her family in Carbondale, Colorado, but didn’t start kayaking until her first-year of college at The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington Fall 2019. Photo courtesy of Dawson Strumpler. Image description: A whitewater kayaker paddles through a big rapid on the Salmon River while water crashes over the bow of her kayak, concealing the whole boat underwater.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What has kayaking and paragliding taught you and how have these sports helped you evolve as a person?

A: I have gained a respect for how fragile life is in general, but also that we put ourselves out in these risky situations for a reason. It feels so good. It’s a way for me to experience the outdoor world, while also progressing in something that I really love. It’s made me have an appreciation for the delicacy of life, and for being immersed in wild places. I feel like that appreciation is most applicable when I’m on multi-day river trips and having that feeling of being completely disconnected from the world. Honestly I prefer it that way.

Q: How do you approach risk management?

A: Managing risk, for me, is somewhat difficult in kayaking and paragliding. I think it comes down to knowing the difference between feeling anxious about doing something and feeling uncomfortable about doing something. If I feel uncomfortable or if I feel like my skills aren’t adequate enough to do something, I won’t do it. This especially applies to paragliding because it is a very inherently risky sport. Probably three-in-four of all the paragliders I know] have gotten extremely hurt in the sport. I think a great paragliding pilot has the ability to say no. 

Obviously I’m still working on it, but I’m trying to separate the idea of ‘this would be so cool to do’ and ‘I am uncomfortable with this, I don’t think this is right for me right now in my progression.’ This can be really difficult, especially with paragliding, because you hike up a mountain and you get to the top and then you’re like, ‘dammit, I have to hike down.’ I’m not there to prove myself. I’m way more there to enjoy the outdoors, as well as enjoy being out there with my friends. I think it’s much more valuable to have a mindset like that, rather than to have a mindset of going out there every single day and doing your best and pushing and pushing and pushing. 

Q: Have you ever had an incident or injury that made you reconsider your involvement in kayaking or paragliding?

A: I haven’t personally had an injury that’s made me reconsider, but I’m saying that as a very lucky person. I have people very dear to my heart who have gotten extremely injured in these sports, and I think that kind of sets me back from the summit fever thing. I’ve been flying when two people collide right next to me, mid-air. I saw them fall to the ground. Fortunately, they were ok. With those accidents, at first, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ but I think they’re also very humbling. I have to remind myself why I’m paragliding and why I’m kayaking. And it’s really to get into the outdoors and feel that thrill that I love so much. It’s really about managing risk.

A paraglider walks closer towards the edge of a mountain preparing for a paraglide flight.
Macie Brendlinger, sophomore nursing major at Westminster College, prepares to fly at Point of the Mountain flight school in Draper, Utah Nov. 2021. Brendlinger earned her P-2 paragliding certification Sept. 2020 in Bozeman, Montana after becoming interested in flying through her boyfriend. A P-2 paragliding certification attests that a pilot has learned about turns, maneuvering their glider, and knows how to plan and pick where they’ll land, according to the US Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association ratings and skills introduction webpage. Photo courtesy of Grayson Luther. Image description: The sun rises in the background as a paraglider with a blue, yellow, white and green glider, surrounded by other colors.

Q: What are some of your most memorable moments paragliding or kayaking?

A: Especially with paragliding, you get a view that you will never get anywhere else. I’ve had experiences flying with eagles right next to me. It was the craziest thing in the world. I can’t even express what that feeling does to your body. It is crazy. Thinking about that experience makes me giddy, like I literally want to start jumping around. 

Q: What advice do you have for people wanting to try these sports?

A: Specifically if you want to get into paragliding, I think it’s really important that you go through the step-by-step progression of getting your certifications, learning from an instructor, and getting signed-off. Paragliding is definitely more of a structured learning process. Kayaking is different because you don’t necessarily have to get a certification to go do what you want to do. I think the biggest thing with kayaking is that people get nervous to try something new. It is super scary when you’re first trying it, but it’s really important to push past that scary point. Being nervous and anxious is all part of progression, and pushing past however long it takes you to feel slightly more comfortable every single day is really important. You’ve got to keep doing it, and it’s scary, but you’ll end up loving it. 


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