07 May 2019

Paragliding star Seiko Fukuoka: from reluctant beginner to FAI world champion

With four World Championship titles, and two European titles, under her belt, Seiko Fukuoka has set multiple FAI world records and is something of a legend in the paragliding world. But when her father encouraged her to take up the sport in Japan in 2001, she wasn’t all that keen.

“I was into golf and scuba diving, but I didn’t really want to try paragliding because I didn’t like the idea of having to walk up a mountain with a big backpack,” she said.

“Even when my father convinced me to go to a paragliding school near Mount Fuji to do a beginner course with him, I didn’t really like it. The pilots who worked there were really nice, though. So I went back to see them and they convinced me to try again.”

Even so, it was only when she saw a video of acro paragliding that she got excited about the sport. “I didn’t find paragliding very exciting to start with, because you only fly in calm conditions,” she said.

“But when I became aware of acro paragliding, I got very interested! It was quite hard to practise acro flying at that time in Japan, so in 2003 I moved to Spain to train with the Safety Acro Team.”

Acro to XC

In 2007, Fukuoka swapped Spain for France and settled near Annecy with her husband – the famous paragliding pilot Pierre Naville. “I was still doing acro at the time, but I had a problem with my neck so that doctors said I should stop,” she said. “That’s why I switched to cross country (XC) paragliding in 2009.” 

Now based in Doussard, a town on Lake Annecy, Fukuoka is a paragliding instructor specialising in competition training, and a “European Norm” test pilot, as well as one of the best competitive XC paragliding pilots in the world. So what’s the secret to her success?

“I think doing lots of acro paragliding helped me to do better in XC competitions,” she said. “It’s a big help with glider recovery, for example.”

Her advice to women keen to emulate her results is to take the time to progress safely, without taking risks. “The technology has moved on, making it easier for women and other lighter pilots to compete.

“However, lighter pilots still have to work harder on tactics to beat those with larger gliders, so you have to practise a lot. And if you are a woman weighing 50kg, it can still be difficult to fly a glider designed for someone weighing up to 90kg.

“That’s why it’s even more important to progress steadily and not put yourself in danger by trying to step up too fast.”

Next steps

Fukuoka’s current goals include setting yet more world records, and continuing to share her knowledge with up and coming pilots.

“My main aim at the moment is to set another distance or speed world record,” she said. “I would love to hold an overall record, rather than just in the women’s category. I also want to keep sharing tactics and training with more pilots.”

On the competition front, she also plans to participate in the FAI World Paragliding Championship in Macedonia this August.

Photo credit: Yannick Perrin/Seiko Fukuoka