Life Lessons

from

Eddie the Eagle

By David Daly

Photo Courtesy of TheSun.uk

Photo Courtesy of Posterbe.com

Almost everyone loves a good underdog story, and I am no exception. Hollywood capitalizes on stories of average people overcoming fantastic odds with blockbuster movies like Miracle and Cool Runnings. Settling in for a recent family movie night, I found one such film caused even this combat-hardened Marine to shed a tear or two. 

 

Better known as 'Eddie' Edwards, the 20th Century Fox movie, Eddie the Eagle, depicts British Olympic ski jumper Michael Edwards' untraditional and brutal path to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. His indestructible spirit earned him a chance to represent his country on the world's stage. With stubbornness and an unwillingness to accept defeat, he is a man who ultimately proved his antagonists wrong. 

 

Derailed Magazine's goal is to share stories of strength and survival from people who had been through what most of us can't imagine. Through trial and tribulation, a person gains perspective. We set out to discover what knowledge these inspirational people possess from their experiences. Eddie's story intrigued me, and I wanted to hear his Derailed story.

For most of us, at some point in our lives, we dare to dream big. We envision ourselves accomplishing more than anyone believes we can. Although we won't all win Oscars or explore the jungles for lost civilizations, we can often surprise ourselves with what we're capable of achieving. Setting out to learn more about the man behind the movie, I contacted Eddie the Eagle. But it was the real Michael Edwards I wanted to know more about, and I was hopeful he had an inspiring and encouraging message. 

There are times when "dreaming big" means making up one's mind to keep going when 'going on' seems impossible. It's sometimes tempting to give in to our darkest hours, especially when everything around us says we have no chance at all of succeeding. I wondered what drove Eddie to keep climbing up those hills. After a few brief exchanges, Eddie was kind enough to meet with me.

His love for life, generous heart, and kind spirit were immediately apparent even over video chat. After only a few moments of speaking with him, it was clear his positive attitude was unstoppable. His passion for experiencing all the excitement life has to offer was contagious. 

His Olympic dreams faced obstacles at every turn, with the first being where he lived. Eddie explained that in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in South West England, they didn't even have snow. To the locals, his hopes of competing in the Winter Olympics were ludicrous. He recalled, "I started skiing when I was 13. I was so into skiing, and I started racing, and I told all my family and friends that I wanted to go to the Winter Olympics, and they just laughed."

With a warm-hearted chuckle, he continued, "They said it's impossible. You come from Cheltenham, and we've got no snow, no mountains, nothing. Forget it! Stick to plastering and construction with your dad." The doubts of those around him served only to fuel his passion to achieve his dreams. "I always loved proving people wrong. So, whenever people told me that I couldn't do something, I would automatically go and do it just to show them that it can be done."

Ed became a talented downhill speed skier with hard work but failed to make the cut for the British team. Where most people would have seen this as the end, Eddie looked for another way to make the squad. That's not to say the set-back didn't test Eddie's determination. 

"My overriding thing was the love of the sport, really the passion. I'm still just as excited to put a pair of skis on now as when I was 13 years old. So, that overrode everything. The resilience and the tenacity, and the never giving up attitude, was because I wanted to do something that I love to do, and I didn't feel it was a hardship."

 

The solution to his problem came when he learned of another Winter Olympic sport, ski jumping. Modern ski jumping competitions originated in Norway during the 19th century. In incredibly dangerous competitions, athletes ski down ramps ranging in height from 90 meters to 120 meters. Jumpers launch off the ramp and fly through the air while being judged on distance and style.

 

Ski jumping might have given Eddie a chance to make the British team, but it was a long shot. He had never jumped before, had no money, no coach, no equipment, and just 20 months to train before the Olympics. During the 1988 Calgary games, the ramps were 70 meters and 90 meters. Most would have given up at this point, but not Eddie the Eagle.

Photo Courtesy of The Guardian

When recalling that moment, Ed remembers thinking, "I was prepared to do anything in order to carry on skiing and then ski jumping. If that meant sleeping in the back of a car, if that meant scraping through our bins to find food, I would do it because I was doing something that I love to do." Eddie was entirely self-funded, working as a plasterer with his father and taking whatever odd jobs he could. At one point, he even took up residency at a Finnish mental hospital just for the cheap rent.

Photo Courtesy of Irish Mirror

His training started with John Viscome and Chuck Berghorn in Lake Placid, New York. Berghorn's equipment, which Eddie had to borrow, was too big for him. He had to wear six pairs of socks just to make sure his boots didn't fall off. At one point, the chin strap for his helmet was a piece of string, causing the helmet to fly off at times. 

 

Additionally, he was at least 20 pounds heavier than his nearest competitor and had low vision. His thick glasses would fog up during jumps making it almost impossible to see. Overcoming all of this would be the toughest battle of his life.

 

"Getting to the Olympics was my biggest struggle because I had everything against me. We didn't have any snow and we didn't have any ski jumps. I didn't have a trainer, any money, or any equipment." With a smile and a bit of pride, Ed continues, "Competing in the Winter Olympics was the greatest challenge, which is why it was so satisfying."

Ed half-jokingly believes his strength comes from being the second born out of three children. "I'm a middle child. I've got an older brother and a younger sister. My older brother was the golden child. The first born, he could do no wrong. My younger sister was the daughter that my mum had always wanted. And then there was poor old me in the middle."Smiling from ear to ear and laughing, Eddie continues, "I had to fight to get any attention, good or bad, from my mum. Being in that position gave me so much resilience and so much tenacity."

About one year before the games in Calgary, Eddie competed in the 1987 World Championships in Oberstdorf in Bavaria, West Germany. This would be the first time he would represent Great Britain, coming in 55th in the world. Ed became the sole British ski jumper to qualify for the 1988 winter games with a successful jump in the World Championships.

 

In February 1988, Eddie competed in both the 70 meter and 90 meter jumps, setting British world records with both. Against the entire field of competitors, Ed placed in both events, although he was last. But Eddie never had delusions of winning a medal. For him, making it to the Olympics was the ultimate prize. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many people have remembered him all these years later.

 

We can all relate to moments when we hear the voices in our heads of all the people who have told us we can't do something. As Eddie the Eagle was perched on the 90 meter jump with the world watching, he had just such a moment. "I'm sitting on the bar at the top, and then all those negative thoughts come through my head, and then eventually I just put my goggles down and go."

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

According to Eddie, the film captures the moment well. Cheering fans below become eerily silent in anticipation. As Ed sits on the bar, his naysayers' voices consume his thoughts as they tell him he is not an athlete. It's not until an Olympic official asks if he is alright that he fixes his goggles and flies down the ramp into history. It's a moment Ed loves in the film. "The screenwriters [sic] did it so well. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I watch it." 

While the movie is fantastic, several plotlines deviate from the real-life story of Michael Edwards. A few points where the screenplay, written by Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay, takes poetic license are worth mentioning. For example, the depiction that Eddie, played by Taron Egerton, is athletically challenged is untrue. Eddie has succeeded in sports such as football, rugby, cricket, and particularly downhill speed skiing. Eddie is considered a gifted athlete by his peers. 

 

Eddie's coach's portrayal, Bronson Peary, played by Hugh Jackman, is also a falsity. Bronson Peary is a fictitious character created out of several real people. Eddie was coached by two men named John Viscome and Chuck Berghorn. Of the inaccuracies, the most glaring is the portrayal of Eddie's father. Both Terry and Janette Edwards were very supportive of their son's Olympic dreams. 

 

Artistic license aside, the screenwriters' additions did not detract from Eddie's fight to achieve his dream, and Ed couldn't be happier with the film. Wearing his characteristic warm smile, he expresses his feelings about the movie, "Loved it. I absolutely loved it. They did such a great job, and Taron Egerton... I couldn't believe how much he looked like me from 33 years ago. He had the jaw, the mustache, the glasses, the hair, and he sounded and acted just like me, had all my mannerisms. I think they did a fabulous job, and it still makes me cry when I watch it."

Photo Courtesy of Orville Barlow

During the Olympic closing ceremony, Frank King, the Organizing Committee president, even gave Ed a nod when he said, "You have broken world records, and you have established personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle." Unfortunately, Eddie would not compete in the Olympics again. 

The commercialization of the Olympics is a growing concern among many. And while most spectators loved Ed's presence in the 1988 Winter Olympics, many of the athletes and organizers feared he was more of a distraction than a competitor. In a controversial move, the International Olympic Committee made it nearly impossible for Eddie or others like him to compete in the future. 

 

This game-changing decision came to be known as the "Eddie the Eagle Rule." Now, anyone with aspirations of going to the Olympics must first compete in international events and place in the top 30 percent or among the world's top 50 competitors, whichever is fewer. Ed worked hard to qualify despite the new rule. Through hard work, he became a better ski jumper. However, Eddie failed to meet the new rule's requirements for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, and the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. 

 

On some level, Ed recognizes why the rule was made, but he also disagrees with it. In a rare response without a smile, Ed states, "I can see why they brought it out because there are plenty of people out there who will try and take advantage of the situation." He goes on by stating, "At the same time, I think it's still a little bit short-sighted. We can't all be ranked as the top 10 in the world." He asserts, "I was trying to be the best ski jumper that I could be."

Ed continues by saying, "I didn't know that I was going to get called Eddie the Eagle and get all that attention. They could have used it as a vehicle to help promote the Olympics and promote sports and all that kind of thing. But instead, they sort of closed ranks, and they said, 'Go away. We don't like what you're doing.'" He concludes his thought with, "They thought I was making a mockery of the sports, which was not my intention at all."

 

The Eddie the Eagle rule, which prevented any further chance at the Olympics for Eddie, did little to stop the man behind the legend. Ed is still just as optimistic about life and is grateful for each opportunity that comes his way. I couldn't help but wonder if there's anything he would change in the three decades since his famous accomplishment.

Eddie the Eagle

After taking a moment to ponder the question, he states, "Sometimes I think it would've been nice to come from a more well-off family so that it would have been an easier journey." He continues by telling me, "But then I think, well, I wouldn't have experienced the things that I went through in order to get here [sic]. So, it wouldn't have been worth as much. In a way, I don't think I would change anything."

Ed has kept busy since the moment he leaped off the ski jump in Calgary. He has appeared on countless TV shows, radio, commercials, released a book called On the Piste, and recorded a song that reached #2 on the Finnish charts. This Renaissance man has earned a law degree, is becoming an accomplished dancer while also studying Karate and Judo. He is even renovating a house, and in his free time, is ranked ninth overall in the world of amateur speed skiing.

 

He says of his hobbies, "I'm always doing things that I love to do, which is my construction, my dancing, my skiing. I think, you know, life doesn't get any better than this." He continues by saying, "And as long as I stay as fit as I can, so that I can do all the things that I want to do, I'll be very, very happy." 

Eddie declares, "I've been mega busy, flying around the world, speaking at conferences and lunches and dinners, talking about resilience and tenacity and never giving up and telling my story." He looks fondly at the past and is optimistic about the future. "I'm looking forward, and I'm just hoping the next 55 years are going to be as fun and as exciting as the last 55 years."

Ed wants others to know, "No matter how low you think things are, it can get worse. Appreciate where you are and figure a way forward. There is a way forward. Never ever, ever give up." He reminds, "Dig deep and keep on going. You're doing it for a reason; you're doing it because you love what you're doing. Never forget that. When you think you can't carry on, you really can."

 

With his warm smile, kind laugh, and determination, Ed is a beautiful example of the human spirit conquering the odds. We may not all have Olympic dreams, but if we approach our challenges in the same way Eddie the Eagle has, we all have a chance to soar. Perhaps that is why Ed's story remains in the hearts of so many even decades after his Olympic jumps. 

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