Billy Morgan was Team GB’s showman-in-chief but he admits he was privately struggling with the big stage lights when he landed Winter Olympic bronze, writes James Toney.
Southampton star Morgan became the first British man to win a medal on snow when he made the podium in the snowboarding Big Air event four years ago in PyeongChang.
He recovered from a knee injury to narrowly make the team but when he arrived in Korea he suffered an ear infection that became so badly blocked he complained of dizziness – not ideal when flinging yourself off a 60 meter ramp at 50mph.
His build-up to the Games was also impacted when his former Royal Marine dad, who he dubs Mad Eddie, suffered an aneurysm that almost him.
“I’ve probably only realised after retiring from competing how I was dealing with my mental health, trying to distract myself rather than talking about it,” said Morgan.
“I was really struggling before PyeongChang with just the stress and anxiety of it all. All those scary tricks started to get on top of me, I was coping with stuff off the snow too. I just had a big psychological wobble but I was really good at pushing things to one side.
“In extreme sports you kind of learn to live with the fear, you have to try to force yourself to love it. I always thought if I wasn’t scared that would be when things were dangerous, when I’d really hurt myself. I supposed I needed that fear to keep me in the middle ground.
“When Simone Biles spoke about it in Tokyo I absolutely understood where she was coming from, if you’re not feeling right then you shouldn’t do it, especially when your health is on the line.
“I think it’s important if you have things you need to address that you feel you can take a step back – it’s just sports people aren’t designed to think like that.
“As I got older I got that fear feeling more. I went to bed worrying, couldn’t get to sleep because I was fretting about stuff in my head.”
Morgan began snowboarding as a 13-year-old at the Southampton Alpine Centre, having honed his skills at Southampton Gymnastics Club and skateboarding on the streets of Shirley. At school he was known as ‘Billy Backflip’.
He is quick-witted and confident but also admits to being shy with nagging moments of self-doubt. All of which seems a little hard to believe when you saw him twisting and spinning through the air without an apparent care.
If TV’s annual sports personality award was presented for personality, then Morgan would be a national star, foxtrotting across a dance floor, munching bugs in the jungle and holding court on the One Show.
Morgan shook off a hangover of Olympic proportions to carry the British flag at the Closing Ceremony of the PyeongChang Games, balancing it on his chin as he strutted into the stadium, the faces of team officials frozen, not from the -30 degree temperatures, but in fear.
After winning bronze 24 hours earlier, Morgan admitted to hit the town hard – and not remembering that mates had taken him back to the Olympic Village on a luggage trolley.
Four years earlier in Sochi, the underside of his board was emblazoned with the words “I’m having more fun that you” – which certainly looked the case to most observers in a sport known as being as party-loving as the staff of Downing Street.
After finishing his competition he famously danced in a Russian nightclub with a toilet seat around his head, later joking his bronze in 2018 was ‘a bit of an upgrade’.
These controversial Games are being staged in one of the driest parts of China, Yanqing’s brown mountains a world removed from a traditional alpine vista. The Winter Olympics without snow is one thing but the Games without Morgan, quite another.
Morgan though will be there in spirit, if not spirits, as part of Eurosport’s commentary team, with the exploits of his successors in the British team broadcasting across the channel and exclusively on discovery+, the new streaming home of the Olympics.
Snowboarding is a sport with a lexicon of its own. A bonk is not something that happens apres-ski but a cool trick, stoked is a good thing, gnarly is not and crud conditions are never ideal. How Morgan brings all this alive for a television audience will certainly be worth the watch.
Four years ago he had planned for one more Games appearance but made the decision to retire shortly after lockdown began.
“I realised I’d just hit a wall, competing at that level just didn’t appeal any more, I needed a change of scenery,” he added.
Morgan spent the pandemic slowing down, looking after his vegetable patch and creating ever more complex dishes in the kitchen for girlfriend Sammy-Jo, who gave birth to their first child, a baby boy, in August 2020.
“The hardest thing for me after the Olympics was not having that kind of aim,” he added.
“The six years prior to the Olympics I was constantly competing, constantly trying to get as good as I could be and then it just finished.
“After the Olympics it was like a full lifestyle change and then Covid made that even more intense. It’s still been a beautiful time, just being there with the family and our boy.
“It’s going to be weird watching the Olympics but I’m looking forward to it, it’s very different having to talk about it rather than do it.
“I’ve always been more of a doer than a talker but I also still love a challenge.”
They say nothing is scarier than live TV, Morgan may beg to differ.
Watch All the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 live on discovery+Eurosport and Eurosport app