Interview: Lesley McKenna - Half pipe heroine

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Scotland's snowboarding queen is hoping it will be third time lucky at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, she tells Roger Cox

• Lesley McKenna

LESLEY McKenna has been injured. Again. In 2006, in the run-up to the last Winter Olympics in Turin, Scotland's most successful snowboarder famously broke her ankle, all but destroying her chances of a medal. This time, it's her back that's the problem. She "nailed it", she says, during a recent training session in Colorado. Fortunately, however, there's been no lasting damage.

"It's not a long-term injury," she says, sounding casual and upbeat. "It only took about a week to get better."

Still, the timing isn't ideal. Next month McKenna is due to represent Great Britain at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Did this latest fall bring back memories of the pain and disappointment of four years ago?

"To be honest, if you're a snowboarder you get used to being injured," she says. "While I was in Colorado, I was sharing an apartment with two other British girls, Jenny Jones and a young up-and-coming rider called Amy Fuller, and also a couple of my European friends, Cheryl Maas from Holland and Lisa Wiik from Norway, and we were all injured. Every single one of us had to take at least five days off out of the 20 days we were there, not because we needed a day off from training but because we were so hurt we couldn't ride. And that's normal – you just get used to it. I think it's really hard for people outside snowboarding to appreciate that."

McKenna's discipline, the halfpipe, is one of the most punishing in the Olympics. Competitors ride up and down the sides of a giant, man-made gully, repeatedly launching themselves high into the air and performing mind-boggling sequences of flips and twists. The scoring system is similar to that of gymnastics, with the most difficult, technical moves receiving the highest marks. Unlike gymnastics, however, the risk of serious injury is ever-present. Slip on a balance beam and you might bruise your coccyx; get things wrong at the apex of a halfpipe manoeuvre and the consequences can be a lot more serious. Just ask American Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce. In December, he ended up in hospital with a life-threatening brain injury after slamming his forehead against the side of the pipe while attempting a "double cork" in practice (two flips and two spins in one trick). He survived – just – but is now facing a long, slow path to recovery.

To up the ante still further, the halfpipe at Vancouver's Cypress Mountain will be the biggest in Olympic history, with sides measuring an intimidating 22ft from top to bottom. More height means more speed, which translates to more time in the air, but with that comes an increased chance of injury.

Emboldened by her time in Colorado, however, McKenna is clearly looking forward to the challenge.

"I had an amazing ten days in the pipe at Copper Mountain, which is the same size as the one at Cypress," she says. "I haven't ridden that many 22ft pipes before because I've not been doing many contests over the last couple of years, so it was a bit of an experience. The extra height changes things a lot – the drop-in is just so fast."

Given that McKenna grew up skiing and snowboarding at Cairn Gorm near Aviemore, it's perhaps not surprising that she went on to excel at the halfpipe. The ski area there contains a couple of beautiful, naturally occurring gullies, the Gunbarrel in Coire Cas and the larger, steeper-sided Coire na Ciste, and McKenna vividly remembers playing in them as a child.

"We used to go flying up one side of the Ciste Gully and then go flying up the other side," she says, "probably knocking people down as we went. I've got distinct memories of chasing Alain (Baxter] down there when we were kids."

Baxter, the recently retired British skier who took bronze in the slalom at the 2002 Winter Olympics, only to be controversially stripped of his medal after the infamous "Vicks inhaler incident", is McKenna's cousin. At one point, it looked as if she might follow him into a career on two planks, but then fate intervened.

In the mid-90s, while McKenna was part of the British ski team, a friend made her a bet: if he could get her as much financial support for snowboarding as she had for skiing, would she swap sports? Not long afterwards, she made the switch and never looked back.

McKenna started competing on the international Snowboard World Cup tour in 1998. In the build-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, she was ranked seventh in the world and tipped as a possible medal-winner. However, things didn't go according to plan and she returned home empty-handed, having finished 17th in a field of 23. "When you stand at the top of the Olympic halfpipe and all of a sudden realise that 40 million people are watching you on TV, you freak out," she told one interviewer. "You feel like you are letting the whole world down if it doesn't go well."

Four years later at Turin, in the aftermath of her horrific ankle injury, the pressure was off: nobody was expecting her to do well. After three months on crutches and a further four months of intensive rehab, she had about a fortnight to prepare. There was no shame in her 34th place finish – it was a miracle she was able to compete at all.

Anyway, to focus too much on McKenna's competitive record is perhaps to miss the point. She has picked up plenty of silverware in her time – six podium placings and two competition wins on the world tour – but she has always maintained that medals and trophies aren't her primary objective, that it's pushing the envelope that counts.

BEFORE Turin, she was asked what she would do if every other snowboarder in her event had a disastrous, low-scoring run. Would she play it safe when her turn came, to ensure she won gold, or would she throw caution to the wind and bust out some big, daring moves? Without hesitation, she replied: "You'd get in there and you try something you've never done before."

Obviously. Why hang on for a 1-0 win when you can put on a show and win 6-4 after extra time and penalties?

Now 35, she will be one of the oldest competitors in the halfpipe, but she certainly won't be a lone vet in a field full of youngsters when she flies out to Canada. "It's funny," she says, "there are a lot of women in their early to mid 30s still at the top of the sport now. After Vancouver, I think there will be a big changing of the guard, but right now, I'm not alone. I think the average age of the top women is maybe 31 or 32. It's kinda cool actually."

Snowboarding has always been a male-dominated sport, but throughout her career McKenna has worked hard to redress the balance. In 2003, she and her childhood friend Josie Clyde formed ChunkyKnit productions after noticing the dearth of snowboarding films featuring women. Their first release, 2004's Dropstitch, showed an international all-girl crew, including McKenna, Jenny Jones, Tina Birbaum, Lisa Filzmoser, Lisa Wiik and Cuca Aranda, pulling off huge airs and monster rail-slides in off-the-beaten-track locations like Scotland and Iceland.

Dropstitch proved female snowboarders were pushing the limits just as much as the men, but not everyone was paying attention. In the run-up to the 2006 Winter Olympics, one Sunday newspaper ran a story featuring McKenna and other women from Team GB beneath the headline: "Snowstoppers: Winter Olympic babes to melt your heart". A men's magazine also got in touch, asking her if they could shoot her on a snowboard wearing a bikini.

Did it bother her that the media took that approach? "It did at the time," she says, "but then I thought, well, you know, do these people even know what a snowboard is? Have they ever been snowboarding?"

No matter what happens in Vancouver, McKenna says this will "definitely" be her last Olympics. So what will she do next? "Maybe I'll follow Alain on to the bike and have some fun," she laughs. (Baxter recently retired from competitive skiing to try his hand at cycling.) "I think I'm just going to focus on helping as many people as I can. I think traditionally in boardsports and freesports or whatever they're calling them these days, the women are less supported than the guys, so I feel my support towards the younger female riders – and female riders in general – is maybe more useful.

"It's not that I prefer helping the girls, it's just that I feel that it's an area that's desperately lacking … I'd feel like I was doing a good job."

&#149 Lesley McKenna will be part of the GB Olympic team in Vancouver. The ladies' halfpipe contest is set for 18 February. Log on to: www.vancouver 2010.com/olympic-snowboard/ for details.