Billy Morgan & Izzy Atkin | What Do Their Medals Mean for British Skiing & Snowboarding?

Why winning Olympic silverware affects the future of the sport

“Oh my god, it’s like déjà vu,” said Jenny Jones, as she stood at the bottom of the Pyeongchang slopestyle course with a huge smile on her face. It had just been confirmed that Britain’s Izzy Atkin had won a bronze medal in freestyle skiing after an agonizing wait – one that echoed Jenny’s own nerve-shredding experience of winning bronze at Sochi four years ago.

A week later and the Brits in Pyeongchang were at it again, watching through their fingers as the remaining snowboarders dropped in the men’s Big Air and one-by-one fell over, leaving Billy Morgan with the bronze.

“It’s becoming a bit of a habit,” joked GB Park & Pipe snowboard coach Hamish McKnight to the BBC afterwards. But the parallels don’t stop with the colour of the medals or the manner of the wins.

“Lots of people were phoning up saying they had seen the Olympics on TV and wanted to try freestyle.”

As the dust settles post-Olympics and Izzy and Billy do the rounds of breakfast TV and radio interviews, it seems news of their achievements is having a similar impact to the “Jenny Jones effect” that saw a notable increase in the numbers of people trying out skiing and snowboarding in the UK.

Even before the medals, there were reports of increases in bookings at snow domes and dryslopes across the country, as the BBC’s blanket coverage inspired people to give snowsports a go. And with Billy in particular getting a lot of mainstream media attention as the games wrapped up, indoor snow centres say that bookings and enquiries have gone up significantly.

The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead reported a sharp increase in enquiries about snowboard lessons in the wake of Britain’s Olympic success. Photo: The Snow Centre

“We had a 20 per cent increase in traffic to our website, and we had to get extra people to man the phones,” Rebecca Hicks, marketing executive at The Snow Centre in Hemel Hempstead, told Mpora. “Lots of people were saying they had seen the Olympics on TV and wanted to try freestyle.”

“It was the same as when Jenny won her medal – these days we take more bookings through the website but that was our busiest day ever on the phones.”

It’s not just good news for snowdomes and dryslopes either.

“It means so much for the whole team,” said Billy when he won. “They’re all stoked. I think there were a few tears actually. I don’t think I’ve seen any of them cry before.”

The outpouring of emotion was understandable. These Olympic medals were not just the pay off for four years hard graft for McKnight and the rest of the team behind GB Park & Pipe, they were a vindication of their whole approach to coaching.

“The accepted model of coaching is really reductionist – ‘human is a machine, give it the same stuff and it should perform.’ But that’s not how it works.”

“Billy’s medal shows that the approach we take, where we’re learning tricks in a fun and progressive way, really does work,” GB Park & Pipe’s program director Lesley McKenna told Mpora afterwards. It’s a way of working that she, Hamish McKnight and Pat Sharples worked closely together to develop, and in the world of elite sport it’s an unusual one.

“When you go into coaching world the accepted model of coaching is really reductionist,” said Lesley, when we chatted to her in the run-up to the games. “It’s the marginal gains approach, ‘human is a machine, give it the same stuff and it should perform.’ But that’s not how it works, I don’t believe.”

Instead, Lesley, Pat and Hamish looked carefully at why people got into skiing and snowboarding in the first place and realised that: “The number one thing is keeping it fun for people. Fun is the key element.”

Izzy Atkin, on her way to winning a bronze for Team GB - the first ever on a pair of skis. Photo: Sam Mellish

It helped of course that the three of them all started out as pro riders themselves, and are “in it for the love of skiing and snowboarding first.”

“Pat, Hamish and I would probably still be doing this is the funding was there or not,” Lesley said. “I don’t know if you’ve read that skateboarding book, The Answer is Never? So the answer is never, and the question is: ‘When are you going to stop skateboarding?’

“If you asked Pat or Hamish or I ‘when are you going to stop skiing or snowboarding?’ that would be a stupid question.”

This freesports background means “we’re definitely slightly different,” according to Lesley. And convincing UK Sport to back a program which focuses on riders having fun definitely took some doing.

After all, the lottery-backed body grants funding to British Olympic athletes based on their medal prospects, not how much fun they’re having. But by winning medals at a second Olympics on the trot, the GB Park & Pipe crew have proved once again that their unconventional approach is one that’s worth putting money into.

“It means so much…” Members of GB Park & Pipe team, including program director Lesley McKenna (holding the phone) watch Billy Morgan collect his medal. Photo: Sam Mellish

There were representatives from UK Sport watching when both Billy and Izzy won their medals in Pyeongchang, as well as when Woodsy got his hugely commendable fourth place. Afterwards Dan Hunt, performance director for British Ski & Snowboard (the Park & Pipe team’s parent body) said: “I think they would look at that and think, ‘yeah, that’s worth investing in in the future.’”

From a funding point of view, Hunt said: “British skiing and snowboarding is in good shape moving forward. We’ve come here and we’ve shown that we can take lottery money and convert it into a medal. We can’t really do any more than that really.”

The Park & Pipe team’s strong showing is obviously great news for the next generation of elite shredders. Riders like Rowan Coultas and Tyler Harding (who made their Olympic debuts in Pyeongchang) or Katie Ormerod and Madi Rowlands (who both just missed out due to injury) will benefit from their teammates’ performance when it comes to future UK Sport funding. But it’s also great news for snowboarding and skiing in Britain as a whole.

Billy and Izzy’s medals have proved that by prioritising fun and staying true to the spirit of snowboarding and freeskiing, British riders can reap big rewards. No wonder they’re being held up as examples to inspire grass-roots participation. As Lesley McKenna put it last Saturday: “We hope Billy’s medal inspires many more people in the UK to come and have a go.”

The evidence would suggest that’s happening already.

Billy Morgan sending a frontside triple cork 1440 with his signature double grab in the Big Air final. Photo: Sam Mellish

Suffering from a real bad case of Olympic fever? You’ll be pleased to hear that we’ve joined forces with Ubisoft, the folks behind ‘Steep: Road To The Olympics’, to provide you with the very best coverage of the PyeongChang action.

While many of us will never even get close to attempting a switch triple cork 1440 Octo grab in real life, thanks to the magic of video games, and in particular ‘Steep: Road To The Olympics’, that possibility is much closer than you think.

Get STEEP & the Road To The Olympics add-on in the STEEP: Winter Games Edition. Available now

You may also like:

From Underdog to Absolute Boy | How Billy Morgan Proved His Critics Wrong
How Izzy Atkin Won | The Tactics and Tricks Behind the 1st Ever British Skiing Medal

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