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Living on the edge: Wingsuit warriors descend on China

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ZHANGJIAJIE, China — Fourteen of the world's top wingsuit flyers flung themselves from the top of a Chinese mountain over the weekend in a competition to determine the fastest in the world.

The wingsuit grand prix was one of the most ambitious events staged by this young but rapidly-growing extreme sport. It also underlined the danger: One competitor, Hungarian Victor Kovats – "Vick Fearless" – plunged to his death after his parachute failed to open during practice.

"He would have wanted us to continue, so that's what we do," said Iiro Seppanen, who heads the World Wingsuit League, organizers of the event in China's Tianmen Mountains.

And continue they did. The event was organized over two days, with the qualifying rounds on Saturday and finals on Sunday. The winner was Columbian Jhonathan Florez, who's racked up three thousand wingsuit jumps.

The local Chinese authorities have claimed the jagged Tianmen Mountains inspired much of the movie Avatar. Whether there's any truth in that or not, it was a dramatic setting for a dramatic event.

The flyers flung themselves from a soaring peak, powering like rockets over a course that stretched through the valley below, before pulling the chutes that would brake their dive and bring them safely to ground.

"Just diving, diving, diving and then powering through the turn," was the way chief judge Jimmy Pouchert described it. "You know when you get it just right. It feels different. It feels just right."

The course was designed by legendary wingsuit flyer and BASE jumper Jeb Corliss, who was also judging at the weekend. While it attracts some of the same competitors, in BASE jumping competitors jump off fixed objects like buildings or bridges. In wingsuit flying, competitors use special suits to "fly" down valleys or around buildings.

Among the Americans was Jon DeVore, whose movie credits include daredevil stunts in the third sequels of Transformers, Iron Man and the Hangover.

"The nerves build up, but with every step towards the edge I seem to calm down a little," said DeVore. "The second I jump off its pure Zen."

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But why do they do it, what motivates them to take part in a sport that's claimed more than 20 lives this year alone.

"It's pure passion. We love it," said DeVore.

Ellen Brennan, one of five Americans and the only woman in the competition, said: "Because it makes me happy"

While for American Noah Bahnson, who grew up in New Mexico and now lives in Dubai, the reason is quite simple.

"It's fun," he said.

Bahnson, with nearly 10,000 skydives and 400 wingsuit jumps under his belt, emerged as the fastest of the Americans and second overall — just a fifth of a second behind Florez.

Brennan, a native New Yorker who is known as the world's fastest flying woman, had hoped to make a statement for the growing number of women in the sport. "We really jump just as well as the boys. We fly just as fast. The only reason the boys can fly faster is because they have more practice."

In the weekend's event she didn't make it through to the final, but was happy with jumps that were among her best.

"You know it’s a good jump when you like shake afterwards," she said on landing. "I am so happy right now."

In spite of the euphoria, Kovats’ death hung over the competition.

"You know when you do a jump after a friend dies, you feel a great relief," said Brennan. "It's like the jump you do is for that person. It’s like a moment you share with them."

But danger and age didn't prove to be much of a barrier, with one of the fastest times set by British-born Tony Uragallo, 60 years old.

"There's life in the old dog yet," he joked. "This is incredible, the excitement, the nerves."

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