By Samuel McMahon
It’s hard to think of many more recognisable faces in British snowboarding than Ed Leigh, probably because over the last twenty or so years he seems to have been everywhere and done almost everything. From starting out as a seasonnaire in Val d’Isere in the 90s, he’s progressed to being a sponsored rider, MC-ing events, editing magazines, writing, filmmaking, winning air guitar championships and presenting Ski Sunday to commentating on perhaps snowboarding’s biggest stage: the Winter Olympics.
If you’re still not sure who he is, think back to the last five-ringed circus in Sochi and Jenny Jones’ bronze medal. Out of the three people in the commentary booth, Ed was the seasoned veteran to partner Tim Warwood and Team GB rider Aimee Fuller. As it dawned on them that their friend of many years might just take home Britain’s first ever medal on snow, they lost the plot, whooping, hollering and eventually breaking down and crying. It was a moment denounced by the Daily Mail as ‘puerile’, though for many, like me, it showed the passion and heart behind what was – in theory at least – an unlikely victory.
It wasn’t even Ed’s first time taking some heat at an Olympics. In 2006 he ended up in mildly hot water for screaming “DRAMA! Jacobelis is down!” at the world number one as she threw away a sure thing for a gold in the women’s boardercross – so with Pyeongchang 2018 looming large, I asked him if there’ll be any changes in approach to his turn in the booth this time round.
“I learnt more in four days about the profession I’m in than I have in twenty years… up to that point I’d thought ‘Keep your nose clean, do a good job, people will notice and you’ll get promoted.’ Absolute horseshit. That was a slow news week and the controversy led the sports news for quite a while – I had no work booked on the Sunday morning (when the women’s’ slopestyle went out), by the Thursday I was booked up for the whole year.”
Not that he’d attempt a deliberate stunt, lest you think the worst. Part of what makes Leigh a great commentator is how indelible the heart he wears on his sleeve is. If anything, his job seems to consist of him holding back the tide of enthusiasm within, such is the depth of his gusto for all things action sports, mainly snowboarding, but encompassing skateboarding, mountain biking and surfing, as well as a host of niche sports he covers working for Red Bull TV like parkour, free-diving and motocross. As far as Sochi goes, he admits it was a slip up he’s still embarrassed by now, but he describes how he and Warwood doubled down their efforts for the rest of the games. “I want to do snowboarding proud first and make people understand that it isn’t curling and it isn’t speed skating, this is part of our culture: the humour, the fun, not taking it too seriously. But you don’t want to go out there and make a scene for the sake of it. That would be really embarrassing.”
The pinnacle was arguably the men’s snowboard halfpipe finals, complete with all the drama and spectacle you could wish for and ending in a job more than well done for the men on the mic. With his years of Ski Sunday experience he’s now established as the ‘straighter’ half of the Beeb’s coverage, with Warwood magnifying the entertainment. It’s a role he’s very comfortable sharing with his old friend. Now ‘the snowboarders’ have been given a bit more trust on the world stage, he actually can have a co-pilot who knows what he’s commentating on. Not to mention he’s good for a laugh.
“For me it’s like sitting in a pub without beer, watching your favourite sport. [In Sochi] Tim would come up with these one liners time and time again – there were so many times in that commentary box where I just had my finger on the cough button, doubled-over crying with laughter!”
You don’t get to sit in that seat without getting a few insider tips on who to place a few quid on for the 2018 Olympics, so who are Ed’s top picks for GB medal hopes this time round? Obviously, he started with the snowboarders. “I think Billy [Morgan]. His ability level is so high, I think with a quad (a jump with four inverts and five complete rotations) and a front triple fourteen (three inverts and four rotations, spun the other way and finishing without being able to see the landing) he’s got a real shot at the big air.”
“[Katie] Ormerod is a machine… it’s only ever [Jamie] Anderson (USA) that’s shown the level of consistency that Katie’s got. Some people think she’s quiet, but she’s just cast iron confident. But without question, the biggest hope is Woodsy. His entire life has been built around this moment. He’s got the personality, the drive, the repertoire and the experience to do it, and if he’s fit, he’s a definite medal for me.”
But enough about the Olympics – there’s far more to a career that sees Leigh constantly jetting round the world than one expensive fortnight every four years. What about the commentating for the Freeride World Tour? Documenting adventures for Whitelines and Transworld? Ski Sunday? In fact, what’s been the best gig yet?
“It’d be my role with Red Bull for the last two years as their live anchor. I get to go to some of the best events in the world and I get the same adrenaline rush in the last five minutes before you go on air that you would if you were riding, surfing, skating… whatever. It’s the same ‘Oh wow, we’re really doing this!’ and you have to know what you’re doing and believe in yourself. It’s the art of self-control and self-belief, and I love it. I get really addicted to it.”
And there you have it; we’re back to the seasonnaire thrillseeker once again, always after a new challenge to conquer with a cheeky side serving of endorphins. I was lucky enough to go under Ed’s wing on a multi-day backcountry mission a couple of years ago and it was evident to me from the off how his obsession for finding the perfect adventure is only equalled by the joy he gets from sharing the tales of it after.
That is, until the next project or idea comes along, then he’s off again. From blagging trips as the tea-boy-made-editor-after-six-months at Whitelines, to planning stories for Ski Sunday via ‘testing’ resorts for The World Snowboard Guide, of course there have been a fair few adventures and enough stories to fill this whole magazine – but which of them has been the best? What follows next is a lot of groaning and allusions to being frogmarched on Russian platforms at gunpoint, getting held hostage by small town Mongolian mayors and mastering heliboarding in Alaska on his sixth attempt, but eventually one rises to the top:
“The one that stands out, as one of those fairytale trips was in March… 2003? Matt Barr (another ex-Whitelines editor) said he’d heard about this resort in Spain, Baqueira Beret, and that we should do a trip. We had a night in Barcelona going nuts whilst the storm was doing its business, then we drove up the next day in the midst of the storm. It was so bad it tore all the snowboards and the roof racks off the car on the fast lane of the motorway up there. We went over a pass where the snow was over the bonnet and eventually got to this little town. We went up and rode – there was no one. It was all blue and green runs in between this insane terrain. There was a chair lift up this ridgeline and the poles were numbered so you’d sit on the chair looking down at all the lines. Then we’re like ‘we’ll turn round the bottom of pole 34, then it’s smash the windlip and off the cliff’, for days!”
The whole time telling these tales he’s grinning like a Cheshire cat who’d got the cream, stolen it, got busted and then talked his way into selling the cream back to the dairy. It’s infectious – you can’t help but smile along because he’s clearly so into everything we discuss. It’s no wonder he makes a great anchor, being so open with your audience gives you that instant hook and connection.
Given his candidness, those who know him will wonder how he hasn’t ended up splashed across the tabloids for some of his past antics. Like most snowboarders, he’s had his share of down days and summers with fewer places to vent his energy than a ski resort can offer. “I’ve certainly calmed down from the earlier days, and I’m SO lucky that so many of my indiscretions snuck in just before social media and camera phones – there’s no digital footage out there!”
“The thing is, a lot of them look quite sanitary on the surface: three time UK air guitar champion – it looks like a lot of fun! It’s not until you tell people it was whilst dressed as Satan Whoppercock jumping out of a nine foot penis into a spunking fire extinguisher that people start to look twice!”
There can’t be many better end quotes to an interview than that, but to try and avoid any Sochi-like aftertaste, I went for one more: what does he think of our small mountain town? “I’ve ridden in Morzine so many times and for me, I was always really impressed with how tight but laid back the Morzine scene was, it’s grown organically with a massive cosmopolitan community. You don’t have those divides that you find in so many other towns – it actually has grown up as a truly multi-cultural mountain town.”
It’s indicative of what Ed Leigh is all about. ‘Puerile’ is a perfectly accurate description, but so is ‘thoughtful’. ‘Loudmouth’ rings as true as ‘loveable’, which probably explains his almost universal appeal. If anyone with that much drive and zeal is given the chance to follow his passions, good things are bound to happen for everyone.