He never could stay far from snow. Back in February, ‘Eddie the Eagle’ arrived at John Snow’s Howlands Hall to deliver one of the most inspiring talks I have had the pleasure of witnessing.
As part of the college’s mental health awareness week, the former Winter Olympian stood before a packed-out crowd to pertinently emphasise the value of resilience and courage, exuding a contagious sense of warmth and positivity throughout.
Many will base their knowledge of him off the 2016 biopic with Hugh Jackman. Watching and subsequently meeting the now 55 year-old Michael Edwards, however, allowed a more complete insight into his fascinating life and times and forced everybody to look at him in a new light entirely.
His likeability encouraged the audience to reconsider his legacy and cultural profile. Sometimes considered as a ‘joke’ contender by the media, Edwards was also widely slammed by athletes for making a mockery of the sport.
By and large he was not taken seriously for finishing last in the ski jumping event at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, but Edwards will have us know that “technically a Frenchman broke his leg and finished 59th!”.
With innumerable set-backs and nothing handed to him, his remarkable back-story and unthinkable achievements make him seem like the true winner to us thirty years on.
Plasterer To Finnish Pop Star
It was a surreal experience when a man of such massive folkloric renown emerged on the stage, seemingly unnerved by the occasion and so diminutive in stature.
He began in his characteristically light-hearted and jokey fashion, claiming that he would feel more comfortable at the top of a 90m ski jump “stark boll*ck naked” than talking in front of a large crowd.
He quickly found his feet, though, and looked at home as he relayed his inspiring life story in the most charmingly anecdotal fashion. For example, he recounted how he was temporarily a pop-star in Finland and reached number two in the charts.
More humorous, perhaps, is the origins of his ‘Eddie the Eagle’ tag: it was not because he embodied supreme grace or vision but, in his words, “because we sh*t ourselves when we fly!”.
In order to actualise his lofty ambitions and become the first Great British representative for Olympic ski jumping since 1928, Edwards had to overcome untold amounts of adversity along the way.
From the working-class town of Cheltenham, he rejected his destiny as a plasterer and defied the odds – for he was too much of a daredevil, too ambitious for such a lifestyle.
Against The Odds
It all started when he took to his local dry ski slope in Gloucester on a school trip. He started out as a downhill skier and was determined to make the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Not only was he financially disadvantaged in comparison to his peers, but also physically impaired. His far-sightedness meant that he had to wear thick glasses under his goggles as they would mist up at high altitudes.
In the end, Edwards tells us, it was his class that inhibited him and trampled over his dreams at a young age. With the cheapest kit and equipment he found himself ostracised, outcasted and failed to make the cut.
Ordinarily this would deter people from having the will to carry on, but not young Eddie Edwards. He spotted “a gap in the market” as a Great British ski jumper and was determined to prove the world wrong, despite landing in somebody’s back garden on his first attempt.
He journeyed to Lake Placid with no resources or helping hand to speak of, and condensed seven years of ski jumping into one afternoon; mastering the 10m, 20m and 40m in just one day.
Desperately poor, he was forced to rummage through bins and salvage what he could to survive. With the help of approximately twenty-five coaches, he also intermittently relied on the aid of other national ski-teams.
For instance, the Italian team supplied him with a new helmet, the German team gave him a new suit and the French donated some wax along the way.
Astonishingly, his boots were four times too big for him so we was forced to where six pairs of socks in order to make them fit. At one point he broke his jaw and had to suck soup through a straw and, when training in Colorado, Edwards recalled how he was fortunate not to break his neck.
He was taking up residency in a Finnish mental hospital when he found out about his qualification for the Calgary games. After years of hardship and overcoming the financial, physical and statutory obstacles that stood in his way, his time had finally arrived.
“How Did You Get Yourself Here?”
A recurring theme that Eddie Edwards frequently referred back to was asking the audience to consider how they have got to where they are now.
He transported the audience back to the moment that he stood on the 90m ski slope, about to perform his first jump at the Calgary Olympics.
In that moment, that life-affirming snapshot, Edwards considered all the hardship and determination that had culminated in that inconceivable achievement.
His extraordinary feat was motivated by and reliant upon, primarily, proving people wrong. He could have thrown in the towel on countless occasions and given up when the challenge seemed too insurmountable.
When the IOC wrote him off and urged him to turn his back on his dreams, he took a two-and-a-half day journey to Switzerland in his Mum’s car, ate out of bins, sucked soup out of a straw and almost broke his neck.
He is living proof that no matter the difficulty of the task in hand, no matter how ostensibly impossible it seems at first, where there’s a will there is always a way.
Disregarding the sheer extremity of Eddie’s achievements, the essence of his story is relevant in light of the exam season ahead. It is time we took a leaf out of Eddie’s book and face the world with tenacity and, more importantly, a smile.