Through It All | The Lesley McKenna Interview

Triple Olympian Lesley McKenna talks pipe dreams, shifting perceptions and pioneering women in snowboarding

Above: Lesley McKenna. Pic: Hannah Bailey.

The Luminaries Series is about shining a light on some of the most inspirational people in our industry, documenting their rise in their given professions, and sharing some of their insights from along the way.

Writing this intro for Lesley McKenna is no easy feat. What words can do her justice for all she has done for women’s snowboarding globally. If you are a snowboarder, particularly in the UK, but really worldwide, you will either have been directly inspired by Lesley’s path or be subconsciously impacted by it, in fact you are likely pushing along in it right now.

“She has broken trail for so many women to realise the possibilities of being in snowsports”

She was at the frontier of competitive snowboarding in the late 90s, she was amongst the legendary early crew of pipe riding ladies, and she produced some of the first ever all-ladies snowboarding films (Chunky Knit!). She did all this before support was really there for women in snowboarding. With her pioneering chameleon career in winter sports, which has stretched across more than three decades, she has put her endless passion, determination, and skills to create opportunities not only for herself, but for all the ladies around her, and those coming after.

In 2003 she won the World Cup pipe, she headed to three Olympic Games (say what?!), whilst producing two movies with Chunky Knit, and managing the Roxy team. Her path has been unique, and with that comes an unknown route that wasn’t always easy at times. She has broken trail for so many women to realise the possibilities of being in snowsports from athlete, to videographer, competitor to participant. Now with a masters in performance coaching, and her vast experience she is helping the next generation to navigate the competitive field and all of us to connect and explore our perspective as we head into nature.

PC: Hannah Bailey

Firstly, can you tell us what your job is and what you do these days?

I live in Aviemore in the highlands of Scotland, I love to snowboard, I love to be in the outdoors and I am a mum. I work part time for GB Snowsport as a Programme Manager. I also just set up a project called Wandering Workshops, splitboarding workshops and projects to explore meaning and how you create meaning through adventures, and to have a good time touring the Scottish highlands. It is the start of something I hope grows.

The experience of this winter has definitely helped to bring to the forefront the connection I personally have to the environment but also how to share that with other people. To see other people make their own form of that connection through doing, through going out and splitboarding, touring, cross country skiing, or walking about, then talking about it! It has been lovely to see that and see it come to life.

“The land has made me, and I am making the land”

You have travelled the world with your career as an athlete, snowboarder and with GB Park and Pipe, so what kept bringing you back to Aviemore?

I am so grateful that I have been able to travel so much to so many parts of the world. As I was travelling, one thing that struck me was the atmosphere, the feeling or sense of the place that you get. I always wondered where that came from. If you go to Japan you are going to get a totally different social experience than in Italy or Austria. However it is more than that, I think it is the land, it has its own character and feel. A lot of that comes from the trees, the vegetation, but also the watershed and how they have affected the geology of the land, how the water has worn away the landscape and what kind of features that makes. Then how the snow lands on the features!.

PC: Hannah Bailey

A feeling I get from a landscape comes from the combination of what I know I can do on a snowboard, what I enjoy to do, and how the snow on that day has interacted with the land. It is a creative and innovative process that creates the feeling. When I am at home in Scotland there are added layers for me, because the land, Scotland and the weather patterns formed me. The way you have to get by in Scotland, the thrawness (Scots for stubbornness and absolute conviction), you have to just get out and do stuff. You learn to live your life with that feeling and input. When I am doing anything in Scotland I very much say, “the land has made me, and I am making the land”.

Obviously by growing up in Aviemore, wintersports were on your doorstep, but how did you become so involved in it?

My Grandad had a very pioneering spirit, and was very good at his job, he eventually was headhunted to run a Timex factory in Canada. So my whole family emigrated there when my mum was 8 years old, they were there for a few years, but my granny decided it wasn’t Scotland! When they came back from Canada they brought skis with them.They continued to teach themselves to ski, and became part of the weekenders who drove to Aviemore and would walk up Cairn Gorm before there were lifts (late 50’s early 60’s). My dad ended up becoming a ski instructor, a BASI trainer and the first professional ski patroller in the UK, my mum is a PE teacher who was a ski instructor at one time. So it was only natural that we grew up skiing!

“All of a sudden I realised I didn’t fit in, and ski racing wasn’t what I thought it was, there was more to life”

I had no idea what the international world of snowsport was like, to me it was Cairn Gorm. It was about fun, the social side and trying new things. There was no media so no access to know what it was like outside in the world. We had a sense of what it was about ourselves! Snowboarding wasn’t on the scene for me then. I was ski racing. I did two seasons in America, and got on the British ski team racing, it was full on. Until all of a sudden I realised I didn’t fit in, and ski racing wasn’t what I thought it was, there was more to life. One of my friends got killed in a freak downhill ski accident, the whole thing was horrific. We came home for her funeral, and it was a tailspin. I went snowboarding and it changed my life. It was a season in Scotland not dissimilar to this, with loads of snow everywhere. I went up everyday with a snowboard Boardwise had given me. Then I went to the Europa cup Alpine Ski finals and ditched the ski team, hitchhiked to Meribel for the British Snowboard Champs, and met Melanie Leando. I never looked back.

Did you have a plan from then?

I didn’t want to stop competing. I loved being an athlete. So I thought I would do it snowboarding. Myself and Melanie really worked together and were really strategic about everything we did. Youth and naivety were on our side, but having fun and meeting people were the main things. We were on our own with limited resources at the start but we got so much help and people were so kind to us. We were both regularly coming in the top 5 in the half pipe comps in the run up to Salt Lake (Olympics 2002).We loved halfpipe so much we couldn’t get enough of it, we did anything we could to get enough money to ride it. It was so rewarding!

PC: Hannah Bailey

How many times in life do you get to dedicate yourself to a project and put everything into it?! To have the freedom to do that. But I ended up at the Salt Lake Olympics alone, as Melanie was injured, and that was a lonely place to be. Then it wasn’t about taking on the world, learning this new trick or going as big as you could. It was serious all of a sudden, the focus was different and the chat was about winning medals, and I find it difficult when the chat goes there. It is not why I am motivated to do anything, the curiosity goes away, and all of a sudden you have to change your accountability mechanism, from hard work and exploration to delivering something external that you don’t really have control of.

So what was it like in the late 90’s for women in snowboarding?

If you go back to 97/98, there were maybe 20-30 women around, many of whom I still say hi to every now and then. We supported one another, so we were not arch competitors. We were in it together! Even for guys, there were not many of them at the top end. We were a mismatched bunch of people, from all different backgrounds and motivations, really united by this love of sliding on a snowboard. It really was like that

“These strong local scenes supported their riders and everyone learned off each other”

Not many people had a lot of money. Now you see you need a certain amount of money to compete at the highest level, but back then there were alot of people who had found snowboarding and just had to make it work. It was not so easy, as it is not a cheap sport! Most people went to two or three events, and lots of local little events. Only the top riders were travelling and the rest were participating in their local scenes. It was better for everyone that way, and more sustainable. These strong local scenes supported their riders and everyone learned off each other, passed around equipment, and helped a little go a long way.

Then the Olympics came along? How did things change when that came into it all?

The Olympics is what changed everything! We had these strong scenes, which supported one another, it was a new, growing and vibrant sport. But all of a sudden the FIS (International Ski Federation), the uber structured organisation, came in and at the time it felt like they imposed this structure on top of something which wasn’t fully formed yet. It caused a lot of trouble, ill feelings, confusion and frustration. On a personal level, I had just left that atmosphere and got out (of ski racing), which is ironic now as I am working in that world. I sit on one of the FIS committees for park and pipe. But I have learnt over the years that if you keep getting drawn back in, the system must need you, you need to change it from the inside.

PC: Hannah Bailey

What was it like for you competing for the first time at the Games?

It is the people that created the atmosphere. They knew that in Salt Lake snowboard halfpipe was going to be a showcase event, it was in the moment and it was really progressive. There were big characters involved in the sport at that time, pushing boundaries. You had the established riders such as Nicola Thost, and Stine Burn Kjeldaas being chased by Kelly Clark and Gretchen Bleiler. It was a really exciting time with people pushing each other – we wanted snowboarding to stand out!

“By the time I was at the Olympics, I was wondering who I was doing it for so I reacted and just pushed the send button”

I was used to being a team of everybody. If you have 30 other women at a halfpipe comp, you are on their team! That is how it was. Then all of a sudden at the Olympics, I was on my own, there wasn’t even another British person there. Even though snowboarding is an individual sport, I would rather not be a team of one!
There is a whole heap of expectations that came with me, and snowboarding was new to the British sports media. The number of times I was asked if I smoked weed or had dreadlocks! By the time I was at the Olympics, I was wondering who I was doing it for so I reacted and just pushed the send button. That’s not a mindful place to perform from and usually it doesn’t work. And it didn’t. I crashed in all 3 but I also learnt a whole lot about sport and about myself.

What I learned from being able to compare all my different Olympic experiences (2002, 2006, 2010) in my career is what set up GB Park and Pipe team and what made that so successful. It was worthwhile for that!

PC: Hannah Bailey

So whilst you went to multiple Olympics you also stepped into filming, what was your motivation?

I was riding my best pipe in 2004, and at the same time I had set up Chunky Knit Productions with Josie McNamara (which resulted in films “Dropstitch”2004, and “Transfer” 2005) . That was so motivating to set up something adventurous and exploratory in snowboarding from the perspective of the thirty other women who were my crew and to collaborate with them. We pushed each other to take on a new space in filming. As a female snowboarder you didn’t get the chance to film back then unless you created it yourself. There was Amber Stackhouse and the American crew doing their thing with Misschief Films. It was a time people wanted to film and having it as a co-project really helped my pipe riding. It was quite strategic the way I went about it. To take that aesthetic into the halfpipe was really rewarding.

Did you realise how impactful to the women’s scene that phase was when you were competing and producing Chunky Knit films?

It was a massive challenge, but we believed it could work, knowing that these women were amazing snowboarders and that we could do this. There was no reason we couldn’t! But we were getting really frustrated that the industry wouldn’t invest, and that we were having to do it on a shoestring, through “beg borrow steal”, mates rates, favours. We knew we could do it as we were resourceful, but we knew the guys were not having to do it that way! It spurred us on in the film making. It was a team effort, and a lot of people worked together to make those films happen. It was not easy, but we felt we were opening doors for others. Up until that point, I hadn’t contemplated how horrendously sexist the snowboard industry was at the time. For my own career, I just made opportunities for myself and got on with it. If I got knocked back there, I would just go over there. I persevered and was ‘thrawn”!

PC: Hannah Bailey

“The things they said about female snowboarders and how crap they were, that they didn’t deserve investment, were really horrendous to be honest”

When I started to help riders we were filming with, if they needed support, or a bit of money from their sponsors, it was like trying to draw blood out of a stone most of the time. There were some sponsors who were great, Roxy, Burton, Nikita at the time, but the conversations I had with people in positions of power, who would sign over money, blew my mind. The things they said about female snowboarders and how crap they were, that they didn’t deserve investment, were really horrendous to be honest. It is nice to hear the narrative change now. Watching things like the Natural Selection, the women getting the respect they deserve. The standard of the women’s field right now is awesome, but they always deserved respect and I don’t think they got enough back in the day.

How did you then transition from a professional athlete to a coach or where you are today?

People start asking you as you are nearing 30, when you are going to quit. I got that all the time! As regularly as I got in Salt Lake, do you smoke weed? When are you quitting, when are you having kids, when are you going to get a real job? That really affected me negatively, way more than it would now as a 45 year old woman, I would tell them to beat it!

I spent a couple of years tidying up my life as a young professional snowboard athlete and reconciling what competitive sport at the Olympic level meant. But also what it meant to be a woman in sport, a woman in snowboarding, but also a woman in life. I moved back to Scotland, did my BASI qualifications in skiing and snowboarding as I thought I was going to have to go and get a job. It was so rewarding, as I met loads of people who were hugely passionate about snowsports but hadn’t spent the last 10 years in competitive structures, or dealing with sponsorship or marketing.

PC: Hannah Bailey

It was snowsports in a different space, and it was really refreshing. People stopped asking me in my mid 30s when I was going to grow up and get a real job. By that time I was coaching a lot, I had done my BASI qualifications and signed up to a masters degree in performance coaching. I realised there was a whole body of theories in sport coaching that backed me up! Being able to critically analyze what I was thinking and having a vocabulary for it in the learning and coaching space motivated me. I have spent so many hours being geeky and learning things, now I was looking at what was going on there. I realised that the most rewarding thing for me was to help others learn! So I was coaching the Roxy future team, became the Roxy team manager, and could do some backcountry riding for myself. It was a lovely few years!

So now, after such a diverse and adventurous career where is your focus and motivation in snowboarding?

For me it is about the backcountry experience. I see it as a way to have a very personal experience with nature, of a deep connection with it and the people I am out with. I can trace that back to my first season in Jackson Hole, being with mountain people and ski patrollers. They really knew how to read the environment, and they were teaching me all the time. Even though I was such a rookie, I was taking it in and learning in the moment. I developed a real respect and awe of that kind of experience. Moving on and knowing how to develop skills technically in my competitive career I have been able to take those things into the backcountry, and the idea of a flow/learning state, where you are creating consciousness, is what really fascinates me now. That has taken me to forming Wandering Workshops and really looking at what that is and how I can share it, to invite other people in to create consciousness through learning in the backcountry. Also, I am really happy to be supporting and working with Protect Our Winters UK and Patagonia and want to help promote the conversation about how connection found via backcountry experiences can move people towards action in the climate emergency space.

“Learning and teaching go hand in hand, so I am super motivated by it”

At this stage in my life, I have no business being in the air, this is where I fit in snowboarding (although I have to remind myself of that when I see a halfpipe or a transition!). To be able to still learn and play with what my body mind sees and does – there is still a learning edge and teaching edge there for me. Learning and teaching go hand in hand, so I am super motivated by it. You can’t run out of those types of experiences!

Did your perspective change when you became a mum?

I always knew I would love being a mum! But I was under no illusion how hard it would be. Having felt I had led a full life, I had my daughter when I was 39, I was happy to put aside any unrealistic expectations and get on with it. I did think it would make me less of a risk taker, but I still do ridiculous things!

PC: Hannah Bailey

So what advice would you give her for life?

To be humble, to be respectful and don’t forget to be honest to yourself. You don’t have to pretend to be something you are not! If you have that integrity and you are prepared to ask for help, then you are going to learn things and have a wicked time!

A special thanks to Maritxu, Michelle Noschese, Stine Brun Kjeldaas and the whole Roxy crew, Thierry K and Nidecker, all my UK snowboard buddies and Jeremy Sladen at TSA.


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