Meet Coconea and the Eastern Vets
In the last of our athlete profile series, we look at the legend who is Toma Coconea, the Russian athlete Evgenni Griaznov and South Korea’s Chikyong Ha.
He’s taken part in every single Red Bull X-Alps – that’s six races over the past 14 years. He has one of the largest fanbases and is known for his army of supporters who follow him throughout the race. Just posting his photo on Facebook is enough to send them into a frenzy. He is Toma Coconea, and he’s one formidable athlete, known for his ability to suck it up and cover huge distances on foot.
In 2011, he came close to beating Chrigel running most of the way. That was the second time he reached Monaco in second place, but since then he’s failed to come close to the podium, unable to keep pace with the new breed of wingmen who now dominate the race.
In 2013 he scraped into Monaco in 10th place and then last time around he was forced to retire after getting badly knocked-up after being hit by a strong gust of wind on landing. It left him with a broken nose, a missing tooth and severe bruising – but seemingly no damage to that indomitable spirit.
When we spoke to Toma three months after his accident, he remained bullish about returning to the race. “I still have something to say in this competition,” he told us.
“I had a fast recovery and I put this moment behind me very quickly,” he says now.
Despite him not being one of the best athletes in the lineup, the fact remains that he's still a contender when it comes to the battle on the ground, especially if he sticks to his "more strategic approach". “He’s strong on the ground but in the air he’s outclassed,” says race watcher and paragliding expert Tom Payne. Then again, if the bad weather comes in, forcing athletes to take to foot, who knows what Toma could do?
Another man coming back for more is South Korea’s Chi-Kyong Ha. He competed in 2015 where he came 14th, reaching Monaco in 11 days and 15 hours.
“Just like last year's competition, I'm aiming at finishing the race by placing in the top 10. My preparation for it is going smoothly. Last time, there was lack a of preparation but this time I will prepare to be in my best condition. I will work harder to get better results. I'm very looking forward to the race!” he tells us.
“His track from 2015 was amazing,” adds Payne. “It went forwards and backwards and round in circles. “Now with a race under his belt he’s going to know where he’s going! I think he’ll be stronger in 2017.”
“I have a lot of flying experience. I'm mentally strong and confidence is high,” adds Hachi.
Another familiar face to race fans is Evgenni Griaznov who is making a return to the race after missing the 2015 edition. Previously, he competed in the 2009, 2011 and 2013 races, with his best performance being 5th in 2009, finishing just under 200km from goal. He is yet to reach Monaco and clearly the ambition still burns.
“He's a very strong athlete,” says Payne. “He's famous for being one of the first pilots to take real ‘tiger’ lines through the Alps – landing high, walking over cols then flying across valleys. He’s done a lot of adventure flying in the years since and will bring that same adventure to the race.”
A man of few words, Evgenni says: “I have experience in this race and train a lot to reach the finish.”