Renowned British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle soared back to Western Canada last week, landing just up the road from theUpper Columbia Valley in Golden, almost three decades after charming crowds with his quixotic efforts at the CalgaryWinter Olympics.
Eddie was in the Golden area for a week from Saturday, February 25th to Saturday, March 4th, giving talks, holding Q&Asessions, visiting schools, hosting a screening of the bio-pic Hollywood film about him, attending various dinner events,and hitting the slopes of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in between.
“I love it; I absolutely love Golden,” he toldThe Echo in the midst of his stay there. “The people are great here, just reallyfriendly and I’ve been surprised at how many nationalities there in a small town. It’s especially surprising that there are somany Brits here. And I have to say Kicking Horse has been tremendous; it is one of the best places I’ve ever skied. In fact, itmay just be my favourite. We’ve had blue sky days and then plenty of snow, so we’ve had all kinds of conditions. Andmoguls. I really do love skiing moguls. You don’t get to that in Europe where they always piste (groom) everything all thetime.”
Eddie (his real names is Micheal Edwards, but he has gone by Eddie since he was a kid) quite literally flew into internationalfame in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. He was initially a talented downhill skier, but narrowly missed the cut to participate inthe 1984 Games as a member of the United Kingdom’s alpine ski team (despite posting the ninth fastest time of the yearduring one run).
Unwilling to give up his Olympic dream, he took up ski jumping a few years later, despite never having even tried the sportbefore and only having a short time — two years — to prepare, knowing that there were no other international-level Britishski jumpers (there hadn’t been any since the 1920s) and that if he could just get his skills up enough to actuallysuccessfully land a few decent jumps in competition, he could qualify for the Games. The standards to make the Olympicswere, in Eddie’s own words, quite lax, in part because of the exceptional danger involved in hurling off a jump and flyingmore than 100 metres (330 feet) through the air tends to deter those not properly prepared.
Eddie, with absolutely no funding other that out of his own pockets, undertook a rigorous training regiment, practisingendlessly at Lake Placid, compressing what normally takes ski jumper three years of progression into his first afternoon,and doing up to 60 jumps a day, using borrowed equipment and clothing (some of which was visibly several sizes too largeor small). He allegedly wore as many as six pairs of ski socks to make his feet fit in the secondhand boots he wore, and tiedhis helmet on with a string.
Eddie worked as a plasterer in Britain in between training and competition, and his self-financed shoestring budget meantthat at one point he stayed in a mental hospital in Finland, not because of any mental illness, but because he could stayovernight for one British Pound instead of paying for a hotel. He also allegedly stayed in a cowshed during a competition inSwitzerland and at various times scavenged food from campsite garbage bins to eat.
Other challenges included being about 20 pounds (nine kilograms) heavier than the average skier jumper, a fear of heights(“That really depends on the situation. If I’m up something rickety, like scaffolding during a contracting job, then yes, it’strue. But when we’re talking about me being up on something reasonably stable, such a ski jump during a competition,then no, it’s not true,” he told The Echo) and being extremely farsighted and consequently needing to wear large, thick“Coke-bottle-bottom” glasses under his googles while jumping, which would often fog up considerably and restrict hisvision, (“They really did fog up a lot when I ski jumped. They still do. They did even yesterday at the ski hill,” he said). Thedangerous nature of the sport did take a toll on Eddie, who crashed often and suffered no shortage of broken bones andbruises. At one point, he dealt with a broken jaw by tying a ripped-up strip of pillow case around his head. Despite theseobstacles, Eddie managed to qualify for the Games while still working as a plasterer, in the face of many naysayers.
During the Olympics, the antics continued. On arrival at the Calgary airport, his bag ripped open on the luggage carouseland he had to jump on it to chase down his pants and slippers, and then he promptly followed that up by walking, skis first,right into a closed automatic door. Eddie’s athletic performance was exactly what many commentators expected — hefinished 73rd out of 73 competitors in the 70 metres (normal hill) event in which he managed a maximum jump of 55metres. In contrast, the winner of the 70-metre event managed a maximum jump of 89.5 metres, while the second-to-last(72nd) place jumper managed 71 metres. In the 90 metres (large hill) event, Eddie jumped 71 metres, a far cry from the118.5 metre maximum jump of the winner or even from the 96-metre jump of the second-to-last place jumper.
But Eddie became an instant international celebrity, even appearing on the Johnny Carson show shortly after thecompetition. Crowds adored the bespectacled ski jumper in ill-fitting, secondhand clothes who feared heights ,but stillmanaged to soar off ski jumps to pursue his Olympic dream. Spectators, competitors, commentators and even theOrganizing Committee president commended Eddie’s commitment and embodiment of the Olympic ideal, to strive not forthe sake of earning medals, but for the sake of participating to best of an athlete’s ability.
Following the Olympics, Eddie has continued to work as a plasterer/contractor (and still does to this day) in between stintsas a singer and reality TV show competitor, advertising appearances, having his life story made into a Hollywood movie, andother promotional work stemming from his celebrity status. It was just such promotional work that brought him to Golden,at the behest of British-born Golden-based tourism operator Richard Barker.
“I literally jumped at the chance to come,” Eddie told The Echo. “I don’t get to Canada that often. The last time was maybeseven or eight years ago, and it’s really been nice. So many people have just come up to me for a good old chit chat. Ifthey’re over 40 (years old) they tend remember me from the Games, and if they’re younger they tend to know about meonly through the movie, but they’re still really excited. They usually want to talk about the film and always ask how accurateis it, is it really true, and that kind of thing.”
And just how accurate is the film?
“I’d say it’s about 75 per cent to 80 per cent spot on, and it really does a good job of capturing the essence of that part ofmy life,” he said. “I’ve seen it about 15 times now and it still makes me laugh.”
The final day of Eddie’s stay involved a return to the Calgary Olympic Park to relaunch off the ski jump ramps that propelledhim to stardom. Although he’s been back to Calgary several times since the Games, it was his first time on the jumps since1988, and the event attracted more than 1,000 fans who chanted his nickname while he soared with as much gusto as hedid nearly 30 years before.