Skiing: Show on snow dedicated to a lost friend

Andrew Longmore talks to the snowboard champion hoping to fulfil an Olympic dream
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The Independent Online
The last time I saw Lesley McKenna she was a member of the British alpine ski team trying to piece themselves together after the death of Kim McGibbon, one of the brightest talents in their midst. The team had returned home for the funeral and just spent a week in Aviemore as part of the emotional therapy. None of them knew quite how they would cope returning to the mountains which had claimed their friend. McKenna and McGibbon had grown up together on the slopes of Aviemore. They shared a passion for exploration, both on earth and beyond, a restless passion expressed with startling wisdom by the 20-year-old McGibbon in a poem written on the night before she died:

Descend the roots of the underworld tree,

Release your thoughts and have


Dive into the moon pool to clear

your mind.

Feel your energy, you are strong.

McKenna has the five-verse poem framed on the wall at home and carries a copy on her travels. McGibbon's Christmas card, received only after her death in the New Year of 1996, with the hand-written message: "Flip beyond the dimensions in '96", is another treasured possession, an unfathomable source of strength and inspiration.

In a sense, McGibbon's death in a freak training accident was the catalyst for a dramatic change in McKenna's career. Shortly after our meeting, she left the team, disenchanted by the attitude of her coach and her own lack of progress. By chance she bumped into some friends who had begun snowboarding. They persuaded her to try it, encouraged her to switch codes and backed up their judgement with a bet that they could raise the sponsorship if she competed in the British snowboard championships. Third place in the Grand Slalom and second in the Boarder Cross - a downhill with bumps - in her first competition augured well for the future. Eighteen months on, the little Scot is the UK snowboard champion and is preparing for the first of the eight world events, starting in Tignes on Thursday, which could lead to qualification for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

"I received more support and encouragement in a few days from the snowboarders than I had from my whole time in the ski team," she said. "I'm still very close to the girls, but no one learned from what happened to Kim. Everyone was so narrow-minded. We all said we would stick together and be supportive and, six weeks on, it was all back-stabbing and infighting. I thought, 'I don't need this'. It was all so hypocritical."

There is no questioning McKenna's claims to individuality nor her sporting prowess. Though practically born on skis - she has lived in the same house in Aviemore for all of her 23 years - her first success came on mountain bikes as the World Cup junior champion in 1991 and 1992. A year skiing in America gave her the confidence to progress into the women's alpine team where her courage sometimes outran her technique and her interest in the mystical, expressed through a belief in spirits, fairies and the Jungian philosophy of feeling, challenged the orthodoxies of a deeply traditional sport.

"A lot of that stuff was belittled by other people, but if that helps me to be a better athlete, what does it matter? The problem was that I became the spokesperson for the team's grievances, so if there was anything bad, I got the blame. In skiing, they treated everyone the same. I never felt accepted by the establishment. The snowboarders are very individual. They come from all different backgrounds and they accept you for who you are."

After initial hesitancy, McKenna found the crossover from two skis to one easier the more ambitious she became. "The physics are exactly the same as skiing. You're carving an edge with the ski, making the cleanest possible turn and using the same movement of the hips. The first time I tried it I just slid all over the place, but after a couple of days it clicked. I found I could use more of my skiing technique the better I got."

McKenna's supporters proved as good as their word. Sponsorship came from Evian UK which will cover her expenses for the World Cup season and, in the spirit of a new sport, the French team offered help with training. A finish in the top 40 of the World Cup rankings would guarantee a place in Nagano where the flamboyant discipline of snowboarding makes its Olympic debut. "I know a lot of people think the sport shouldn't be there," McKenna said. "A sport that's only two years old is really too young, but my attitude is: 'Let's make the most of it'." Or, as the poem on her wall says: "Do not be afraid as others will follow." It would be a fair motto for McKenna's hectic sporting life.