TO YOU and I, it would seem to take a great deal of bravery to hurtle across a U-shaped ice sheet, performing daring mid-air contortions at the top of a structure that rises ever higher with each passing Winter Olympic Games.
Ben Kilner shrugs off this kind of talk with a story that illustrates where the real bravery lay when he competed at his first Olympics in Vancouver, four years ago. His mother, Jenny, could not bear to watch her son perform his routines that day, but the mere act of being present beneath the half-pipe was an ample demonstration of her courage.
“A few of my friends have booked to go to Sochi and have got their half-pipe tickets, but I’ve said to my mum and dad that they really don’t have to go,” says the Banchory snowboarder. “My mum’s disabled so it’s really hard for her to get around, so I advised her to stay at home this time. They both went to Vancouver and my mum put on a brave face, even though I know she was affected by the cold. The travelling side of it really got her down. She didn’t tell me until months after that how much it took out of her.
“She has got rheumatoid arthritis and she has got fused ankles and replacement knees – she is not in a wheelchair at the moment but she finds it hard to get about. So I just told her to stay at home and watch it on TV.
“The funny thing is, she came all the way out to Vancouver and my dad said she just had her hands over her eyes the whole time while I was competing. She couldn’t bear to watch – so it’s quite funny. She actually came all that way and then didn’t watch me.”
By watching from home, Mrs Kilner will be spared a spectacle that has the power to thrill, while making observers with a vested interest in the wellbeing of the athlete shiver. As recently as the Turin Olympics of 2006, the half-pipe was three times the height of Ben Kilner. There is no stopping evolution and it is now four times his height.
“In Turin in 2006 the half-pipe was 18ft, and a couple of years before that it was 16ft. But now it’s 22ft and the Olympic specs [specifications] can make it go as high as 24ft. It does get bigger, which some people think is scary, but it actually makes it safer,” he explains. “The transitions are far better when the half-pipe is bigger. When the transitions are short and snappy, you sometimes come away from the wall which means you could land flat, or you could land on the deck.”
When interviewing a snowboarder, you expect to be hit with a bit of snow-sport patois. Kilner may be nicknamed “Kildog” but he does not use the word “man” once when we meet; nor does he indulge us with buzzwords such as “sick” or even the catch-all “awesome”.
He talks like a modern elite athlete talks, because that is what he is.
Kilner travels extensively to protect his world ranking, currently in the low 20s but, contrary to popular myth, elite snowboarders do not prepare for the World Cup circuit by idling in Alpine bars, salivating over videos of themselves doing stunts. He has done most of his preparatory Olympic work here, in conjunction with experts at the Sportscotland Institute of Sport, and it is enlightening to discover that to be a good snowboarder there is no harm in being a good gymnast.
“We’re doing quite a lot of gymnastic work because snowboarding and skiing have gone into the freestyle world where it’s very trick-based and judged on tricks, not times. Gymnastics is a massive part of snowboarding and skiing, so we use that background to cover all corners,” he says.
“To be a gymnast and then step into the snowboard world is probably the perfect situation you can be in. My friend and team-mate, Billy Morgan, was a gymnast himself and you can really see how much of that he brings into snowboarding – it really helps. So Darren Hide at Sportscotland has been basing my programme around that.
“We do a lot of trampoline and a lot of springboard stuff. We can even do diving, but trampolining is probably one of the biggest things. Anything that requires you to throw yourself upside down is the perfect example of good training.”
A lot of gymnasts admit that one of the perks that fuels their training is the fact that it results in a body worth showing off. In snowy conditions, Ben Kilner is not likely to strip layers but he does concede that there is an element of exhibitionism in what he does. “Go back in history and there used to be a love/hate thing between snowboarding and skiing,” he says. “I think I missed all that – I stepped into a world where all my friends are skiers as well. But, when snowboarding started off, it really was about showing off. I think nowadays it has become a lot more professional.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thrive on the showing-off side of it, because, when you’ve got a big crowd, it spurs you on. You just want to impress the judges and the crowd. The more adrenaline you get out of it, the more you put into your performance.”
Kilner, who first tried his hand at snowboarding on a slope on the third hole of his local golf course in Banchory, did impress the judges in Vancouver significantly four years ago, when he finished 18th. So where does he have to improve to better that effort in Sochi?
“I don’t want to set my goals too high and I don’t want to set them too low. For Vancouver I set them so that if I qualified for the semi-finals, I would have been happy, because I knew my run could only get me so far at the time. Now my run is a lot better than it was then. So I’m hoping that finals will be my goal, which will be top 16 I think.
“Last year at the Park City Grand Prix, which is one of the hardest competitions all year, I finished up tenth and that was against a field that I would rate as the best it could possibly get. If I can do something similar to that in the Olympics I will be really, really happy.”
It goes without saying that Jenny Kilner will, too. Even if she has to leave the room when her son is strutting his stuff.