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Aviemore snowboarder Lesley McKenna features in new film Thrawn

The Scot from Aviemore is involved in a new film and has talked about her optimism for the future of Scottish snowboarding.
Neil Drysdale
Lesley McKenna has been in love with the Cairngorms all her life. Pic: Hannah Bailey.
Lesley McKenna has been in love with the Cairngorms all her life. Pic: Hannah Bailey.

It’s a little word with a world of meaning in the Scottish tongue. And while some might describe “thrawn” as “stubborn”, “perverse” or even “ill-tempered”, it comes with a very different definition for Lesley McKenna.

In the eyes of the Highlander, a veteran of three Winter Olympics in 2002, 2006 and 2010, who was the first British snowboarder to win a World Cup halfpipe event, “thrawn” is showing persistence when others are urging you to quit; climbing back on the board after you have recovered from a nasty injury; and offering a short, sharp rejoinder to anyone who has written you off prematurely.

Lesley was raised on “thrawn” and has spent her life pushing the boundaries of her sport. And now, the T-word has become the title of a mesmerising new film by Hannah Bailey which explains the glass-half-full philosophy of a sportswoman, who began as a skier and often had to finance her own path on treks round the globe.

When will Thrawn be screened?

The movie will be screened at the Fort William Mountain Festival later this month – and one suspects that many of those watching will recognise the qualities which propelled Lesley into the top tier of a vocation where Britons previously feared to tread.

Back in the early 1990s, when Lesley was still a teenager, it was widely accepted that snowsports were the preserve of Europeans and Americans.

Yet, that perception never bothered her and those who followed. On the contrary – another good synonym for “thrawn” – it inspired these redoubtable characters to up the ante, graft ever more assiduously and keep chasing new ambitions.

Lesley’s cousin, Alain Baxter, eventually won a bronze medal at the 2002 Winter Games, only to have it taken back after he tested positive for using a Vick’s Sinex spray, which was stronger in the United States than the version available in Britain.

Lesley has nurtured next generation

That was a horrible blow. And I still remember travelling up to Aviemore and watching as the massed ranks of locals cheered Baxter’s return to his roots and presented him with a giant medal to compensate for the one wrested away by the authorities.

Lesley, meanwhile, kept competing, making films, articulating her views, and nurturing the next generation of stars.

And, two or three decades later, nothing has changed in her approach.

Aviemore’s Lesley McKenna features in a new film “Thrawn”. Pic: Hannah Bailey.

She told me: “I was really lucky in my career because, although there were times where funding was really tight or even sometimes when there was none, I always managed to find support either from sponsors, funding or partners or by fundraising and I am very, very grateful to everyone who helped me along the way.

“When I first started out on my career as a ski racer, there were a lot of local businesses and individuals who sponsored me or put in donations towards my training and competing costs from support through Cairngorm Ski Club and onwards to my days on the British ski team and into my snowboard career.

“Along with the commercial sponsorship deals that came later in my snowboard career and the Sportscotland and UK Sport Funding which I received at different times in my career, I managed to make it work.

Always sacrifices to be made

“If there are young local athletes with big dreams and a lot of ambition, it really makes a difference when local businesses and clubs support them.

“There are, of course, always sacrifices and there were times when I was working a few jobs at the same time to support my athletic career. I think that you have to take the ups and the downs as an athlete to be able to reach your potential.

“The most important thing is to be able to work out a way to do what you need to do within the resources you have without bankrupting yourself or your family along the way. There are always a number of ways to do things and, although enough funding does help, it is not always the most important thing in the picture.”

Highlander Lesley McKenna appeared in three Winter Olympics for Team GB. Pic: Hannah Bailey.

The imminent movie screening will offer an opportunity for Lesley and her colleagues to catch up on how their lives are progressing, but, as you might expect from those involved in such a high-octane activity, there’s never much time to gaze backwards.

Instead, as she said: “Events like the Fort William Mountain Festival are really important, not only for spreading the word about what Scotland has to offer, but to give the Scottish mountain sports community a chance to get together and celebrate what we are all so passionate about.

Appreciate awesomeness of Nature

“Experiences on mountains bring on a really special sense of the awesomeness of nature and an awareness of how small and insignificant we are as humans, but this is not a negative thing.

“The result is an openness for adventure and an appreciation of the skill and perspectives of others, as well as a desire to share in the achievements of fellow community members. This is a special thing in mountain sports culture and I think it is something which deserves to be celebrated and shared widely.”

Skier Kirsty Muir in action on the ski slopes at the Freeski Big Air World Cup event in Beijing, before her injury
Aberdeen’s Kirsty Muir on the slopes at the Freeski Big Air World Cup event in Beijing in 2023. Image: Shutterstock.

As an astute observer of developments on the white stuff, Lesley is already thrilled about the next generation who will appear at the Winter Olympics in 2026.

And she has been particularly impressed by the exploits of Aberdeen teenager, Kirsty Muir, who produced a series of outstanding displays at the last Games, even as she demonstrated the advances which some GB competitors have made.

So it’s hardly surprising there is a sense of anticipation two years out from the action which is being held in the Italian cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

Lesley says it’s an exciting time for Team GB

She said: “Kirsty is a really amazing skier. She is one of the best female Slopestyle and Big Air skiers in the world and is also one of the nicest, most positive people that you could ever hope to meet.

Aberdeen freestyle skier Kirsty Muir says X Games medal was ‘dream come true’

“She is just at the start of what I am sure will be a long and very successful career. Mia Brookes, who is the current female word champion in slopestyle and snowboards as part of the GB snowboard team, is also one of the best in the world.

“More locally, we have Emily Rothney  from Carrbridge who is one of the best female snowboarders for her age and is not yet old enough to compete in World Cup events.

“I have seen her ride and it is very, very impressive and I am sure that, if she continues to love what she does, she will be up there with Mia and Kirsty before long.

“It is very exciting to see.”

Lesley McKenna has no fears about making movies such as “Thrawn”. Pic: Hannah Bailey.

An aptitude for making the most of things

There’s a resilience to people in her mould and that stems from accentuating the positive, often in circumstances which would depress others.

As she said about being involved in the film: “We noticed how most of the people we know, who have spent significant parts of their life doing these sports, tend to care more about the environment and our place in it.

“We also noticed that people who have spent a lot of time skiing and snowboarding in the Cairngorms, where the conditions are often difficult, have a special aptitude for making the most of things that they not only show in their attitude towards snowsports, but also take into their lives outside of them.”

If that’s being “thrawn”, we could all benefit from a dose.

Further details about the Fort William Mountain Festival, from February 15 to 18, can be found at:

Aviemore’s Lesley McKenna represented Team GB at three Winter Olympics.

Five questions for Lesley

  1. What book are you reading? The Master and his Emissary [by Iain McGilchrist].
  2. Who’s your hero/heroine? My gran, May Baxter.
  3. Do you speak any foreign languages? French and a bit of German.
  4. What’s your favourite music/band? That changes all the time, but at the moment, I love Beluga Lagoon who’s music is on “Thrawn”.
  5. What’s your most treasured possession? I would say my daughter, but I don’t see her as a possession, so I will say my health and happiness.