BEN Kilner is reliving his exit from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, when he came agonisingly close to reaching the finals of the men’s halfpipe competition.
“I’ve watched my run over and over again,” he says, “and as I land my second-to-last trick I just can’t hold on to it and I collapse in the bottom of the pipe.
“I guess I was pushing myself to the point where my body was only just managing to hold on.”
Aged 21 at the time and still relatively inexperienced, Kilner did well to get as far as the semis, but as he looks back on that night at Cypress Mountain it’s clear he’s still disappointed at not having progressed to the last 12.
“I was pleased to get to the semi-finals,” he says, “but once I got there, I was like, ‘right, I really wanna get to the finals now.’ I knew that I had to give it 120 per cent.”
Fortunately, Kilner was young enough in 2010 to be able to look on Vancouver as a learning experience. By the time the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi roll around, he will be 25 – stronger both mentally and physically. In an interview in The Scotsman in 2009, in the build-up to the Vancouver games, he said he’d be disappointed if he didn’t win a medal. Does he feel the same about Sochi?
“I’ve always said it’s silly competing if you’re not going for a medal,” he says, “but the way snowboarding is continually progressing it means it’s very random who you can expect to end up on the podium. If I land my run absolutely perfectly then I would say it’s easily got the potential to get a medal.”
Sochi is still 15 months away, but for Kilner, the run-in has already begun. The first event to count towards Olympic qualification took place in Cardrona, New Zealand, in August, and there are five more halfpipe events on this year’s World Cup tour that will also count. The next one, in Park City, Utah, is scheduled for 22 December.
If Kilner can ensure he’s ranked in the top 40 in the world with at least one top 15 finish to his name by January 2014, qualification should be guaranteed.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he says, “but it’s not going to be massively difficult.”
That said, Kilner didn’t exactly get his campaign off to a flying start in New Zealand, finishing last in a field of 71, but there’s an explanation.
“About a month before that I was in the States working with [Olympic gold medallist] Sean White’s coach,” he says. “We basically decided to dissect my run and change it completely. It’s kinda like if a golfer was to change his swing – I didn’t want to go back to my old run for New Zealand, but I hadn’t had enough chance to perfect the new one.”
To achieve top marks from the judges, halfpipe snowboarders must marry raw physical power with pinpoint precision. As they skim up and down the sides of a giant, icy drainpipe, performing dramatic mid-air spins each time they launch themselves above the lip, they are walking the slenderest of tightropes: err on the side of safety and the judges will mark you down for insufficient “amplitude”; push just a tiny bit too hard and, as Kilner discovered in Vancouver, your dreams can be shattered in the blink of an eye.
And it’s not just dreams that can be shattered in the halfpipe. Like most professional snowboarders, Kilner has picked up a string of injuries over the course of his career.
“My wrists and my ribs have been an issue,” he says “and my ankles – they suffer a bit too.”
All broken, I ask?
“Yeah,” he laughs, “all broken.”
And that’s just the minor stuff. Kilner has also separated both his shoulders (he jokes that he did the second one on purpose to even himself up) and in 2010 he had to have surgery on the cartilage in his right knee, after dislocating it for the third time.
“I didn’t think much of it,” he says, “but the surgeon said I needed it re-wiring so I’ve got some wires in it now, just to stop it going out of place again. It’s not caused me any bother since.”
Kilner may make light of these various setbacks, but there’s nothing remotely gung-ho about him. He’s softly-spoken, and talks in a calm, measured way that is completely at odds with the stereotype of the impetuous, adrenaline-addled extreme sports enthusiast.
The lad from Banchory is under no illusions about how dangerous his sport is either. Halfpipe skiing and snowboarding doesn’t just look death-defying – it really is death-defying. Two recent incidents prove the point. In the build-up to Vancouver 2010, American snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a serious brain injury at Park City, Utah, while attempting a manoeuvre called a double cork (see panel). In January this year, Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke was killed while training at the same halfpipe that almost claimed Pearce’s life, after tearing her vertebral artery in what seemed like a fairly minor fall.
I ask Kilner – who says he’s “cracked a few helmets” in his time – if he ever thinks about what happened to Pearce and Burke. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “It gives you a reality check that what you’re doing is really dangerous. I went through a phase of injuring myself quite regularly, but now I’m out of that – I tend to stay on my feet a bit more.”
He pauses for a moment.
“I’d say when we do fall, though, we fall quite hard.”
Kilner had his first taste of snowboarding when he was nine. A big dump of snow meant his dad couldn’t get to work, but the road from Banchory to Glenshee was clear, so Kilner’s mum booked snowboarding lessons for Kilner, his dad and his sister. “We had a great day,” says Ben, “and I was hooked.”
He still goes snowboarding in Scotland whenever his schedule allows, usually when he’s back home for the Christmas break.
“I mostly go to either Glenshee, CairnGorm or the Lecht,” he says. “I tend to take up my old schoolfriends so I have a good laugh with them, just trying to make them go as fast as they can.”
What do they think about what he does for a living?
“They’ve all been really supportive. A lot of them are out of uni now and getting full-on office jobs. I can’t see myself doing that, so I’m glad to be where I am. Obviously the reality is gonna be that I will probably be in an office eventually, but not until my body gives up.”
Given the number of injuries he’s already bounced back from, it’s hard to imagine Kilner riding a desk any time soon. But if he does succumb to the inevitable one day, a framed Olympic medal beside his computer monitor would doubtless make the experience a little easier to bear.
For a full list of this winter’s halfpipe World Cup events, visit www.fissnowboard.com
PUT A DOUBLE CORK IN IT
ONE of the hot topics in the build-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was the double cork – a manoeuvre so dangerous that some commentators called for it to be banned. There are many different variations of the trick, but the most common, the double cork 1080, sees riders launching themselves out of the halfpipe and performing two 360 degree flips and one 360 degree spin before landing – a total of 1,080 degrees of rotation. Ben Kilner chose not to build the double cork into his halfpipe routine for Vancouver 2010, but he has now mastered it in preparation for Sochi 2014. Here he explains how it works.
“There are lots of different variations of this trick, but the one I do in the halfpipe is a switch frontside double cork 1080. When I launch it, I start off going the opposite way that I would normally, with my right foot forwards, but then I land back the normal way. You wait till your front foot hits the lip of the halfpipe and then you extend your legs, but it’s really your upper body that works the most.
“For the initial take-off I throw my right shoulder to the back of my left heel, but once I’m actually in the air I’ll tuck up into as small a ball as I can in order to keep the momentum going. Then you feel the world going upside down twice and that’s how you know that you’re roughly there.
“Now that the rest of the world has caught up with the double cork, all the top guys are working on the next thing. A few mentions of the triple cork have been thrown around for the halfpipe, so it’s going to be a daunting task if that gets done. It’s
not been done yet, but I’m sure it will be.”