I remember time standing still before the eruption. Alone in my living room, in the early hours on Saturday 24th February, it felt like the eyes of the nation were with me, fixed on the TV screen. Silently, the country held its breath as Britain's Billy Morgan arched through the air, five and a half thousand miles away, high above the Alpenis Ski Jumping Centre in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The breathless silence seemed to last forever. But then the roar.
“Yes Billy!” I shouted, leaping to my feet as the Southampton man touched down on his final run of Olympic Snowboard Big Air. It was enough to secure third place. Billy Morgan had won bronze and, in doing so, ensured that Britain had enjoyed their most successful Winter Olympics ever.
"Morgan's bronze felt like a big ‘f*ck you’ to the critics"
The moment felt like a victory for everyone connected with British snowboarding, as did Jenny Jones’ bronze in Olympic Snowboard Slopestyle four years earlier in Sochi. However, unlike Jones’ bronze, Morgan’s success also felt like something approaching justice.
Despite having a handful of Never Been Done tricks to his name, including a Backside Triple Rodeo and, of course that Quadcork, as well as high profile success, including a bronze in X Games Big Air in 2016, Billy Morgan has always existed on the periphery of acceptance. Too hardcore for the mainstream. Too mainstream for the hardcore. And yet everybody who’s spent more than five minutes in his company loves him. To them, Billy Morgan's bronze felt like a big ‘fuck you’ to the critics.
Now, it’s almost six months to the day Billy Morgan won his Olympic medal. I catch up with him in Manchester, where he’s at Chill FactorE, the indoor ski and snowboard facility to launch their new Terrain Challenges, which are aimed at getting more people into freestyle snowsports.
Straight off the slope, Billy’s broad smile suggests he’s in his element. He looks relaxed, and rested, but I do wonder if his life after the Olympics is now an endless succession of commitments, from interviews on The One Show, to personal appearances. “My plan after the Olympics was to have some time off. To enjoy the summer and then do some snowboarding that I've wanted to to outside of contests. That hasn't really changed, but I haven't really had any free time.”
After a pause, Morgan’s eyes light up and he adds “But I've had loads of opportunities. I've had the chance to go and do some things that are super fun. Like, I went to the World Cup! I'm not really into football, but I got to go to Russia for the World Cup. Random things like that. It's been awesome, for sure.”
It seems like a world away from life for the average snowboarder, and especially the average British snowboarder. A world where six people share a room designed for two, most meals are freeze dried, and every flat surface has a soaking sock or boot liner on it. “We get treated really well, especially by sponsors when we got to events. But it's completely different to big corporations and that level of VIP stuff. It is weird, I don't really like it that much.”
Surely this is par for the course, following Olympic success? “It's expected I guess. It's probably what most people want when they do well at something, but it's a strange one for me. I still can't decide whether I'm into it or not. But it's cool to experience.”
“All of a sudden it's like 'wow, I've got some nice food!' I remember I used to go to Sherpa in Avoriaz,” reminisces Morgan, “and I'd buy a baton of bread and a hunk of cheese, and that would be my lunch sorted because it was like €1.20. I'd have to budget to get through the season. It's definitely changed. But it hasn't made it more fun.”
"I couldn't really ride. I didn't feel safe doing what I was doing"
To consider this ungracious would be to miss the point entirely. After all, who hasn’t tasted youthful camaraderie, the feeling of being like the last gang in town and doesn’t look back on it with aching fondness. “It's hustling. It's the hustle when you're out on the road and you're like 'Oh shit, we've got to get here' and you jump in the van and there's too many bags packed in the back, and you've got to hustle across Europe for a contest.” says Morgan with heartwarming enthusiasm. “That was kind of cool, you know."
Life after the Olympics has clearly been a whirlwind for Billy. I wonder, six months on, what are his memories of the games. “It's such a whirlwind it's hard to remember. Just so many emotions go on through that period of time, so it's hard to pinpoint it. I remember having an ear infection the day before Big Air and being like 'what the fuck is going on?' It was horrible.”
I’m no doctor, but from the medical knowledge picked up from watching Z-Boys biopic Lords Of Dogtown, it’s clear that ear problems can really affect a person's balance. Not ideal when you’re about to huck yourself of a gigantic Olympic Big Air ramp. This must have had a significant effect on Billy ahead of the event.
“I think it did, but people can have it worse. Some people get their ear blocked and they can't walk and stuff. There were two days of training before Big Air finals, and I did a couple of practice runs. I went to Hamish (McKnight - GB Park and Pipe snowboard coach) and told him it felt weird. Luckily, the practice before had gone really well and he was like 'just do couple of runs and then just sack it off'. Maybe that worked in the end, but yeah, it definitely had an effect. I couldn't really ride. I didn't feel safe doing what I was doing. Whether I was just being conscious that it could put me of balance and I thought 'oh, now I'm worried'...”
It’s a surprise to hear that a man who’s made a living flying at, and then off gigantic ramps made out of snow, talk about being worried. “Oh, I'm always sketchy. I'm never at the top like 'this is going to be fucking perfect'. It's always a danger. It's what makes it fun, but it's also part of what's getting on top of me now. I'm constantly like 'Oh shit, this is going to hurt!'” admits Morgan with a laugh.
The physical side required of top level snowboarders is not in doubt. To varying degrees, from the impish Red Gerrard all the way up to truck-like Chris Corning, every elite rider is now an athlete. However, surely the biggest element is psychological.
“Yeah, for me it's been about the psychological part of it. If I'm in a good place, I can calculate the risks and decide whether I want to take that risk, and then. Sometimes…” Morgan pauses. “There was one contest. It might have been Milan? I just thought 'I don't want to do this'. And I could have... But I just thought 'look, I don't want to do it. I'm out!' But then... I don't know. Maybe I had bad psyche for that. It comes down to mind games. Maybe it's just old age, or anxiety. I don't know.”
"I want to go to Japan and go snowboarding. Proper snowboarding. I feel like I deserve that for a bit"
With the Olympics comes a brief moment in the mainstream spotlight for snowboarding and those involved in it, and while the red tops have generally been kind to Billy, there have been a handful of negative reports following both the Sochi and Pyeongchang games.
Headlines were written about partying with a toilet seat around his neck and some tabloids even managed quiet outrage when he balanced the ceremonial flag on his chin at the Olympic closing ceremony earlier this year (“Uh oh! Don't do that!” laughs Morgan when I mention it). I ask how he thinks he’s perceived by the public after his Olympic success and the media whirlwind that came along with it.
“I would hope I'm not perceived any differently. I don't think I've changed. I've always just tried to be me. And luckily that's been alright with most people. Unless they've caught me on a night out at the wrong time or something.” he admits, the glint in his eye almost betraying him.
“I got feedback after the olympics off people - and people who weren't into snowboarding or anything. They said it was really refreshing to see somebody who seems like they're having a good time, and not taking it really seriously. And that makes sport more attractive for a lot of the people who might not get into sport otherwise, because they see these super focused people and they can’t relate to it.
“And apparently some people saw me and were like 'ah, that's cool. That's refreshing. I want to try some sport' and that hit home. That meant a lot to me. I hope that's the case.”
It’s an honest and heartfelt response that says a lot about Billy Morgan. He’s neither the mainstream kook the hardcore think of him as or the wild snowboarding party animal the mainstream sometimes pin him as being. Well, rarely.
He’s just a normal 29 year old bloke who’s put himself in a position where he can do what he loves for a living and doesn’t really mind the graft that sometimes goes along with that. And that’s precisely why that bronze medal meant so much to so many people who stayed up late to see Billy land those gigantic triple 1440’s.
As a queue of competition winners waiting to meet Billy forms at the bottom of the piste, I have just enough time to ask Morgan what’s next for him, now that the pressure of the four year Olympic cycle's behind him.
“I want to go to Japan. I want to go to Japan and go snowboarding. Proper snowboarding.” he says, as if to emphasise his love for the soul of this sport. “And I'm not spending 14 years of my life…” Morgan pauses to recalculate. “16 years? 16 years of snowboarding and then not doing the things that you see in the videos. I have to go and do that.
“My plan was to take a year off after the Olympics to go and do those things. But it's been rammed with cool opportunities and things like that. So that's what I want to do. Go shredding with the team. Go riding with the juniors. Just snowboarding and doing the things that I want to be doing. And if I want to do some contests, I can choose to do them, rather than being forced to do them for points. Because for the next two years, I don't need them.
“And I feel like I deserve that for a bit. That sounds good to me.”
And then my time with Billy comes to an end as he’s whisked away to meet members of the public. I find it hard to disagree with his final sentiment. The man from Southampton has spent years, and no doubt more than his fair share of knee cartilage, hucking himself off monstrously large jumps in the name of progressing snowboarding, and with little or no thanks. He’s earned his days in the powder fields of Niseko.
Hang on, did Billy just say he didn’t need points "for the next two years..."?
Billy Morgan appeared at Chill FactorE in Manchester to launch the new Terrain Challenges at the indoor ski and snowboard facility.
The Terrain Challenges are an evolving series of freestyle features on the slope that alter each week based on the feedback from the people that ride them.The Terrain Challenges will be in place almost every Thursday through to Saturday. To find out more, visit the Chill FactorE website.