Snowboarding: Adventurer draws strength from spirit of a lost friend

The Lesley McKenna interview: A freethinker, a fun-lover, a natural to the art of snowboarding. Andrew Longmore travels to the French Alps to see an Olympian aiming high
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The Independent Online

When Lesley McKenna returned home in the new year of 1996, she found a Christmas card lying unopened in her hallway. "Flip beyond the dimensions in '96," read the message inside, above the unmistakable signature of Kim McGibbon.

McGibbon had become one of McKenna's closest friends in sport. They shared a love of skiing and an indivisible spirit, had done so since childhood on the slopes of the Cairngorms. But the following day, McKenna would be joining her team-mates on the British ski squad to shoulder McGibbon's coffin into the chapel of the Linn Crematorium in Glasgow.

On the night before she died, in a freak training accident in the Tyrol, McGibbon had written a poem...

"Always head towards the distant hills,

Our future lies silhouetted on the

horizon..."

It was a poem of immense power, eerily portentous. Kim's sister had read it at the funeral and McKenna keeps the original back at home in Scotland. "I feel Kim was on a journey and it was her time to leave the path and go wherever she's gone," she said two weeks after McGibbon's death. "Now, I feel it is time I got on and started my journey and I feel her strength."

The impact of that loss could be seen at the time on the fresh faces of the British squad, already struggling to compete against almost impossible odds. For most of them, the fun drained out of their sport that January day when their team bus left the Alps with a seat empty.

Only Emma Carrick-Anderson, the veteran slalom skier, has ploughed on. And McKenna, whose new path will lead her to the top of a snow-covered semi-circular runway – known as a half-pipe – in Salt Lake City next month.

"It was strange," McKenna recalls. "The first time I ever did snowboarding was with Kim. We just went up a mountain and couldn't get down. And when I went back to Scotland after Kim had died, to cheer me up, my friends took me snowboarding. I went snowboarding for two weeks and they all said, 'Wow, you should start competing at this'.

"I think of Kim still, particularly at this time of year. I think about the times we had a good laugh. I feel very close to her spirit because it's a spirit we shared. She believed that whatever you are doing in life, you should live by it. That's how she lived and that's how I'm living now."

At the end of the 1996 season, McKenna had £2 in her pocket and no place on the ski team. The selectors thought she was too old and had too little potential to be worth even minimal investment. She was also something of a maverick, a freethinker whose ideas about sporting excellence proved too radical for the traditional confines of Alpine skiing.

So the following winter, egged on by friends and financed by an ad hoc assortment of local businesses, she hurled herself into snowboarding, a young sport with a more welcoming culture and a less staid vocabulary. The early adventures of McKenna and her cohort, Melanie Leando, on the World Cup tour are still the stuff of late-night hilarity on the circuit. Cool Runnings with white faces.

"We'd not been snowboarding a year when we turned up for our first World Cup event," recalls McKenna. "Most of the regular riders thought, 'Who are these jokers?' and we had to put up with a lot of Eddie the Eagle jokes. But we took our brass necks into the half-pipe and off we went. I'm sure the others thought we would be around for a couple of shots and disappear off the face of the earth. But we stood our ground, and by the end of that season, when people realised we were deadly serious, they started to help us out." One Canadian boarder, the peddler of one joke too many, ended up on his back in the bar, his arms pinned back by McKenna, his feet whipped from underneath him by Leando.

Six years on from her shift of sport, McKenna is sitting in an unpretentious café in Bourg St Maurice, in the French Alps. The valley is dotted with chocolate-box villages. Bourg, a former linen town, is not one of them. But it is cheap and cheerful, for all the quaint ways of the locals, and, though Scotland is still her home, this is where McKenna lives, sharing an apartment with Leando. Today, she will travel up the road to Val d'Isère for treatment on a shoulder, injured in a recent "slam" – fall, to you and me – and then, this week, it will be on to the States for the final competition before the Olympics. Now this is where visions of gold medals, patriotism and tears of joy will need to be shed.

In British eyes, McKenna has an outside chance of a medal in the half-pipe, a discipline which involves a sequence of aerial tricks and a seriously subjective system of scoring. She is ranked fifth in the world and, in Mammoth, USA, recently won a qualifying competition against the world's best riders, which makes her that precious media item, a medal contender for the Winter Games. But boarding is different, at least in McKenna's freestyle interpretation. "You could have a great ride one day and finish second and do exactly the same the next day and finish 12th," she says. "Not because anyone had done any better, but simply because the judges saw it differently. That makes it much more a jam session. No one really takes it that seriously. You're not bothered whether you finish first or sixth because everyone who makes the final knows it will be a bit of a lottery."

McKenna cannot understand the Olympic obsession with medals and times and placings. Down that road lies stress, anguish and grey hairs, which is not the reason she spent her childhood defying the laws of gravity and her teenage years in dogged pursuit of her cousin, Alain Baxter, the British slalom No 1, on punishing runs up mountains or cycle rides over the glens. To McKenna, sport is all about releasing potential, finding freedom, overcoming challenges and doing your best, all of which demand honesty from within and no aid from the clock.

"If I ride my very best at the Olympics I might get in the top five, but winning a medal is not the reason I'm looking forward to it. Everyone is psyched about going because the half-pipe will be the best that's ever been built and because on the day of Olympic competition, for the guys and girls out there, the sport will move on, be changed forever. To be part of something like that is amazing.

"I think my attitude comes from my early days in the Cairngorms. That was such fun. My parents moved to Aviemore in the Sixties and the atmosphere was pretty much like snowboarding is now. They'd be ski instructors during the winter, run sailing schools in the summer and have a great time. I know they have a laugh at me now because they recognise the same spirit.

"I'm a competitive person but even competing can be a lot of fun. We'd have fitness weekends with the Scottish team, do mental hour-long runs up hills, get on the bikes and ride through the rain and then into the gym. But we'd all encourage each other and it was a bit of a journey. You learnt about yourself and your sport and about other people. By the end of my career with the British ski team I thought we were putting results above the sport and, to me, that was ridiculous. We were throwing the dice all the time and hoping to get a six.

"I snowboard for the same reason I skied. You have a bad day, the weather's awful, you've got a cold and a splitting headache, but you do your best and you have fun. The difference is that in snowboarding there's a whole community behind you. In Whistler recently, I was riding really well and I won the qualifying. But, in the final, I ended up fourth. Yet all the other riders and coaches were saying, 'Great, you're riding so well, that air [aerial trick] you did was wicked'. One of the German guys tried this amazing trick the other day and he landed it perfectly and every single one of the other guys went 'Yeah'. You feel like you're all in it together. You're all exploring your own potential. That's what modern sport and being a modern athlete is really about, and snowboarding is the ultimate modern sport."

The irony is that snowboarding, whose inclusion in the Olympics owed as much to commercial as sporting pressures, has fostered an attitude far closer to the competitive origins of the Olympic movement than many of the more established sports. McKenna was thinking of sending out a press release with a list of 10 forbidden questions. The first was "What is a half-pipe?" (as explained above); the second was "Does everyone smoke dope?" (Answer: no, apparently.) But either way, the snowboarders, with their street language of stretches, tweaks, slams, pipes and rides, would be unlikely to have much time for EPO, human growth hormone and any other drugs that have routinely disfigured the Games. From the mouth of a believer like McKenna, the snowboarder's gospel becomes a seductive philosophy. The sport, at élite level, is young, innocent, as yet not blinded by the glint of marketing men's gold.

At the age of 27, McKenna could be a significant influence on the future of her sport. In company with Leando, she has already altered the dress code for nights out on the tour. High heels and party frocks have replaced baggy trousers, loose T-shirts and chains, the standard leisurewear for the off-duty MTV lifestyler. Rules, in McKenna's eyes, are there to be pushed or broken. At the end of their first full season of snowboarding, broke as ever, the pair unilaterally proclaimed themselves the British World Cup Ski Team. They thought it sounded so much more important when they cold-called big business.

"We would sit down and cook up plans about who we would phone up next," she recalls. "We made a right pest of ourselves, we worked all the ski shows, did all sorts of silly jobs. Actually, we got more support as novices from the snowboarding industry than we had as pretty good skiers, but wondering where the next pound was coming from was all part of the fun. I've always felt that if you do everything you can think of and keep believing you can make it work, you'll do it in the end somehow or other." She might even make some money, though the idea makes her laugh.

"You will influence those who need to

listen

Open your mind and touch their souls

Follow your path."

McKenna will take a copy of the poem to the Olympics. McGibbon would have made a great snowboarder, she reckons. "Kim had just been reading a book called Fairies and that inspired her to write that poem. I still think there's a lot in the old mythological traditions, the subconscious mind or whatever you like to call it. Life has to be a fairy story, so you've got to try to live it like one."

McGibbon was 20 when she died, a life fulfilled, not wasted, in her friend's mind. But, in Salt Lake City, on the best half-pipe ever built, McKenna will be riding for both their lives.

Biography: Lesley McKenna

Born: 9 August 1974.

Home town: Aviemore, Scotland.

Height: 5ft 4in. Weight: 124lb.

Career highlights: (international): 3rd women's half-pipe FIS World Cup standings, 2000-01; 2nd FIS World Cup half-pipe, Berchtesgaden, 2001; 2nd FIS World Cup in Sapporro, 2001; 7th pre-Olympic World Cup in Park City, 2001. Also: 15 British titles.

Favourite all-round resorts: Whistler, Les Arcs.

Favourite trick: Frontside indie in the pipe. "I know it is boring but when it is done nicely it is good."

Other interests: "Reading novels... dabbling in alternative medicine... the whole sport thing... partying... shopping... dancing."

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