The first time Alex Polli saw a wingsuit video, he didn't think it was real.
It was about eight years ago when Polli's friend showed him the clip online. While wingsuits -- specialized jumpsuits that allow humans to fly through the air as if they're superheroes -- had been around for decades, many point to 1997 as the year the pursuit exploded in popularity. It was that year when Frenchman Patrick de Gayardon leapt out of an airplane wearing nothing but a nylon jumpsuit he had fashioned for himself.
Wingsuits became commercially available several years after de Gayardon's pioneering flight. Slowly but surely daredevils across the world modified the wingsuit and experimented with dives at different altitudes. The jumps became more and more complex, to the point where they looked unrealistic.
Indeed, when Polli's friend showed him a video online of a wingsuit dive, Polli had to watch it three or four times before coming to a conclusion.
"I said, 'Dude, this s--- is not real,'" Polli, now 27, recalls. "'Are you stupid? People don't f------ fly like this.'"
It's not hard to find the irony, then, in the fact that Polli has become one of the most well-known wingsuit jumpers on earth. Combining BASE jumping and wingsuit flights, Polli is stretching the limits of the human imagination. His YouTube videos have made him a global sensation. His most popular jump, in which he soars through a narrow cave at 150 miles per hour, has more than nine million views on YouTube.
Even for experienced skydivers, like Tony Uragallo, Polli's stunts are hard to believe. Uragallo, the founder of TonySuit Wingsuits, has worked with Polli for the past two years and even designed some suits for him. What Polli does, Uragallo says, takes "balls of steel."
"I've been skydiving for 40 years, and every video I see of him is a chin dropper," Uragallo says. "We're trying to help him fly fast and smooth and also keep him alive."
Polli’s father grew up in Italy with a love for fishing. It's a hobby that he passed on to his son at a young age. Polli and his family would travel around the globe to some of the world's most exotic fishing locales. During one of the trips off the southwest coast of Africa, Alex remembers his father handing him a gun and telling him to shoot a fish. The gun was about as big as Alex was, and the fish was certainly bigger.
At first Alex struggled with spearfishing, but he eventually came to enjoy it and would even go out by himself. Overcoming that fear and internal struggle would be an important lesson for Alex as he grew older.
"My father showed me that on the other side of what I fear the most,” Alex says, "turns out to be some of the things that I’ve found the most beautiful, the most inspiring."
Polli took up snowboarding when he was 11 years old and went on to have a spectacular amateur career. He even attended a Winter Olympics sports school in Steamboat Springs, Colo. A back injury derailed Polli's snowboarding career, and when he was 18 he left the sport behind and moved to New York City.
During the next five years, four of which were in Los Angeles, Polli took acting classes and supported himself by playing poker. He never went to a single casting, but he loved the idea of playing with emotion and escaping from the pressures of everyday life.
"For the person surfing the wave, for the person painting or for the person acting, it's a form of self expression," Polli says.
While in Los Angeles, Polli started skydiving and testing out wingsuits. Before long he was jumping nearly every weekend.
It was love at first flight.
Polli moved back to Europe four years ago, where he continued skydiving. After 1,500 dives, he was ready for his first BASE jump. BASE jumping is when people leap off of fixed objects: Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs).
BASE jumping combines skydiving with a new, more dangerous task -- avoiding objects.
"If you touch a cloud, it doesn't kill you," Uragallo says. "If you touch a rock, you're a dead duck."
Naturally, wingsuit flying and BASE jumping have been blended in what some people call WisBASE. Polli is one of the pioneers in this pursuit, and last fall he uploaded a video compilation of several of his flights. In the video Polli soars through the mountains of New Zealand, Switzerland and Norway, gliding over hills and shooting through narrow alleys. For most people, the only place where they had seen anything like this was in a movie theater.
In November 2012, Polli became the first wingsuit jumper to successfully strike a target when he cut through a 10-foot foam pole while flying 155 miles per hour.
One month later he topped that with another exceptional stunt. BASE jumping in the Roca Foradada Mountain range in northeast Spain, Polli attempted to blast through a 6.5-by-3.2 foot sign with the numbers "2013" etched in the middle.
The danger in this stunt cannot be understated. Polli was flying about six feet above the ground, and he had avoid the supporting poles while blasting through an extremely small space.
After just missing on his first attempt, he ripped straight through the center of the sign on his second try, with about four inches separating his outstretched hands from the supporting poles.
People may be surprised to hear that Alexander Polli is afraid of heights.
How could this man, who routinely risks his life jumping off of cliffs and soaring through mountain ranges, be scared of heights? The answer is simple -- he's human.
"I'm no superhero," Polli says, "I've got the same fears, the same insecurities as all other humans. It’s just the way I deal with them that might be a little different. I try to get something positive, I try to see the light on the other side. There is light on the other side."
Perhaps what makes Polli unique is his confidence. After meticulously studying and planning his jumps, he says, he can overcome his fear. So even though he might be scared in the days and weeks leading up to a jump, when the day comes, he is worry free.
During his jumps Polli says his mind is blank, his muscles are loose and he concentrates on his breathing.
"It's a state of mind, really, after you do x amount of jumps,” Polli says. "It's not about the jump anymore, it’s about how you live that day. What’s your state of mind in the morning? What's your state of mind in the afternoon? How’s your state of mind when you go to bed?"
When Polli and his team of about 10 friends and colleagues were driving through the Roca Foradada Mountain range one day after practicing the "2013" jump, they noticed a small, 25-by-25 foot cave cut out in one of the mountains. Challenge accepted.
Nine days later Polli was in a helicopter, about 2,300 feet above ground, concentrating on his breathing.
Polli leapt out of the helicopter, straightened himself out, and turned toward the cave. He picked up speed until he was traveling at about 150 miles per hour, and at the angle he was approaching the cave, there was a 13-by-13 foot opening.
Polli hadn’t done any test jumps for this stunt. He knew he could do it after nailing the “2013” target, and on the day of the jump he had no worries. He was in a peaceful state – he had studied, planned and prepared for the jump. And he knew he was going to pull it off.
"No doubts, really," Polli says, "just charging the castle."
Less than 30 seconds after leaping out of the helicopter, Polli burst through the cave.
A video of the jump was posted online, and within three days it had more than four million views.
For Polli, it's not about stunts.
He’s not a relentless, thrill-seeking daredevil. He’s not out to rack up millions of YouTube hits or to prove that humans can fly.
Polli says he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do next, but he knows he wants it to be artistic and he wants to make an impact on others. He’s gotten countless notes from people around the world, telling him how much his videos have meant to them. How the jumps have inspired them to quit their jobs and go on vacation to Acapulco.
More than anything, Polli wants to spread a positive message. Life is to short to be spent fighting or hurting others, he says, and he wants to inspire people to be free and non-judgmental. In his words, he wants to “fart rainbows.”
"He's a very spiritual fellow," Uragallo says, "in a hippie kind of way."
Ever since his dad handed him the gun and told him to kill the fish, Polli has been searching for the other side of fear. Our minds sometimes trick us, he says, and in order to overcome that uneasiness we have to push ourselves to do things that might seem uncomfortable.
We have to charge the castle.
"There’s some sort of saying," Polli says, "That goes something like, 'Don’t live a life where the heart fuels the mind but the mind controls. No, you need the mind that can fuel the heart, but the heart controls.' So those instincts, those feelings that we have as humans, they are real. That sixth sense we have is real. Listen to it."