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EXCLUSIVE: Ninja Warrior host Leila McKinnon opens up about her career and family and how both have sustained her through the tough times

Floods, a broken knee, homeschooling and the loss of significant family and friends has failed to dull the the mother of two's lust for life.
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At the Brunswick Heads beachfront, towering structures made from driftwood, fallen logs and twigs look even more dramatic against the stormy sky.

Torrential rain is battering the place, the wind whipping wildly as we scuttle around trying to erect umbrellas, tarps and more in the hope of keeping the set dry and clear for our star arrival.

In the distance, a red-headed boy races towards us, whooping triumphantly as he spots our makeshift camp. They’d been dropped off at the wrong spot, he tells us; he’ll let his mum and sister know where we are.

A few minutes pass and finally the rain seems to be easing up. A rainbow appears. Then a double rainbow.

And like magic, Leila McKinnon appears over the dunes, trailed by her two tousle-haired children, her grin wide and welcoming as she slowly makes her way towards us.

Sand and hills aren’t a great match for crutches and a leg cast. And given she’s had a long trek today, you’d forgive her for being less than impressed.

But as the newly-crowned Australian Ninja Warrior host, Leila assures us she’s in her element.

“Everything is like running a Ninja course for me at the moment,” she laughs, as she hops her way down the sandy hill. “But this is fun, and the kids are loving it.”

“Everything is like running a Ninja course for me at the moment,” Leila on her busy life and career.

(Image: Trevor King)

The kids – Ted, nine, and Gwen, eight – have already peeled away, competing in a cartwheeling competition as Leila positions herself for her first snap.

Gwen’s hair had been carefully curled for the photo shoot, but within minutes she’s drenched – by the showers and the ocean – and a hasty topknot is employed, as well as a quick outfit change to keep her warm.

“They’re wild types,” Leila laughs of the ebullient duo. “They’re growing up in the country and we give them a lot of free rein. David [Gyngell, Leila’s husband and the children’s father] and I want them to live the kind of childhood that I did – where you were just let loose on the beach.

“When Ted was about five, he kayaked from Mullumbimby to Brunswick Heads with The Bush School. They do things like whittling and making rafts and lighting fires – all those things that parents are reluctant for their kids to do now, but we did in the ’70s when we were young. They really are outdoor kids and I love that.”

The family made the move to the area five years ago. David, the former CEO of Nine Entertainment, was ready to leave the corporate world, while Leila’s work allowed her the flexibility to be anywhere.

Leila and David have raised their children in the country to give them a carefree childhood.

(Image: Trevor King)

“We were ahead of the curve of people moving to the country,” she says of their successful sea change. “David was in lockdown before anyone else; he was ready to move up and just relax away from the city. So the kids have grown up here and it’s been a wild ride. Not just having a family, but having a family through fires and lockdowns and floods. There’s never been a dull moment and you have to adjust quickly.

“We were teaching the kids that it was important to the community that we kept ourselves at home and home-schooled, which we leaned into. And then when the floods happened [in March 2022], we were teaching them that everyone has to be together and pitch in to help. It was lovely for them to be involved in the community and helping people.”

The Hotel Brunswick – the pub which David co-owned with legendary entertainer John “Strop” Cornell until last year – became a gathering point for locals who had lost everything to the natural disaster or those who were stranded, unable to go up or down the highway.

While David helped to provide food, the kids also pitched in to do their part.

“Ted was really impressive,” his proud mother says today. “He cooked pancakes for about 100 people, and the minute he’d flipped the last pancake, would run out to collect all the plates.

“But everybody in the community did what they could. Friends of ours who had boats and jet skis were delivering things, crews of people were cleaning mud out of people’s houses. It was quite a time and it came in the middle of Ninja, so it’s been a busy start of the year. After sitting at home relaxing and trying to keep the kids educated and entertained, suddenly it was into top gear again.”

Leila and her family have been through all sorts of high and lows but it has taught them all valuable lessons.

(Image: Trevor King)

When Leila was called up to the third floor at Nine’s Sydney headquarters last year to talk about a hosting opportunity, the furthest thing from her mind was a shiny-floor entertainment show.

The seasoned reporter has spent decades co-hosting breakfast TV, interviewing royalty, politicians and news makers and producing reports, as well as standing in for Tracy Grimshaw at A Current Affair.

But she knew instantly that it was an offer she’d accept.

“My first thought was, ‘The kids will love it,'” she admits. “Ted goes to Circus Arts in Byron Bay most days. They both go to gymnastics and are into parkour. And they love the show. They came to set and they loved it. They were really shy about seeing [renowned contestant] Olivia Vivian and they pointed out to me, ‘That’s Zak Stolz!’. But because we filmed most of it at night, they didn’t last very long. Ted came up to me and said, ‘Mummy, we’re a bit tired and we’re going to go now, but you’re doing a really good job.'”

Ninja is a bigger-than-Ben-Hur production, packed with elite athletes, humongous outdoor sets and champion commentators such as Freddie Flintoff, Nick Kyrgios and Shane Crawford.

Previously helmed by Rebecca Maddern and Ben Fordham, the show’s 2022 season featured fresh faces in the form of Leila and tennis legend Jim Courier.

“We complemented each other well,” Leila says of their double act. “I did a lot of the crazy and excited screaming, and he did all the actual stuff and the research. You can tell he’s a champion because he knew all the facts, he had written it all out the way he wanted it and he’d planned everything through. The minute I saw he was doing that, I did the traditional television presenter route and went, ‘I’m not doing anything – Jim’s got it all under control!'”

Leila was excited to become the new host of Ninja Warrior

(Image: Trevor King)

Despite Leila feeling like she got off lightly, the pair formed a tight bond on those long night shoots.

When principal filming wrapped, Jim returned to his US base.

Leila, David and the kids had planned a skiing vacation and stopped in to visit him before they hit the slopes – but perhaps they should have stayed with him longer.

It was on the first day of the holiday the family had dreamed of for years that the unthinkable happened.

Having covered for Nine’s Ally Langdon on Today after she injured her knee in a horrific hydrofoiling accident, Leila was devastated when she was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery after shattering her own knee.

“We are blaming Karl [Stefanovic],” she winces at the uncanny coincidence. “I thought, after the last couple of years, it would be great to go on a big adventurous holiday, and on the first day I broke my knee skiing. When I was filling in for Ally, I’d send her messages asking her how she was. When I did my own knee, I sent her a message saying, ‘I didn’t understand what you were going through and now I am sorry I didn’t do more.'”

While the surgery is done and the pins are placed, there will be months ahead of rehabilitation.

But while others might have fallen into a “woe is me” slump, Leila is determined to face each day with a “can do” attitude.

Can’t carry her own glass of water from A to B? No problem – she’s fashioned a water bottle she slings around her neck.

Can’t move quickly enough to keep up with the kids? She’s got a walker at home that she’s become so adept at using that she’ll “get a run up and just go for it – you’ll see me whizzing past the kitchen”.

“There are a lot of frustrating things in losing independence, but … this too shall pass,” she adds with a shrug.

The effect of lockdowns, natural disasters, and her fit and active husband David’s surprising heart attack two years ago at the age of 54 have all seen Leila reflect on gratitude – something which she is drawing on heavily as her broken knee slows her down.

The kids and David were magnificent in their care, she says.

While the holiday didn’t turn out the way she’d hoped, it did reaffirm her love for her family, as well as her appreciation for her own relative good health.

Despite her injury, Leila has always adopted a “can do” attitude.

(Image: Trevor King)

On September 29, Leila turns 50 – a milestone birthday she always thought she’d celebrate with an elaborate bash.

But a recent loss has caused her to rethink those plans.

Earlier this year Leila was devastated to lose one of her closest friends to cancer.

The pair had attended school together in Queensland and maintained an extraordinarily close relationship despite the passing years and distance. Melissa, Leila reflects, was given a very late-stage diagnosis.

Despite being in the thick of filming Ninja, Leila flew up to her side in Far North Queensland to say goodbye. Melissa lost her battle soon after.

“She passed away not long after her 50th birthday,” Leila recounts quietly, the emotion still clearly close to the surface. “I would have thought a while ago, ‘Oh, for my 50th, I’m going to have a really big party and I’m going to be fit and I’m going to look great.’ Instead, here I am eating bacon sandwiches on the sofa with a broken leg. I’m just grateful that I get to be 50 and to be with my family and see my kids grow up. It’s taught me to appreciate things.

“David had that heart attack two years ago and I have never taken it for granted that he survived. We saw Shane Warne just the week before he died – that was a big lesson in being grateful for your family, your health and getting to be older.”

Instead of wallowing in grief, Leila has turned it into something constructive as well as beautiful.

In honour of her father, Mac, who passed away in 2017, she and the kids planted a tree in their backyard.

When their good friend and neighbour John Cornell died last year after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, they added orange trees – a fruit he had loved.

When Leila is more mobile, she and the kids will plant a flower garden there for Melissa before inviting friends and family along to share the space.

“It’s really helped the children dealing with loss to have something like planting a tree for somebody,” she says of how nature has been part of their family’s healing process.

“We have a concrete bench and there’s a black cockatoo painted on it for my dad and a kookaburra for Cornie – being in comedy he wanted to be remembered for the laughing kookaburra. It’s been really helpful for people to have somewhere to go.

“When those birds come, you think of that person and their memory is alive. Ted said to me when we planted the tree for Dad, ‘Mummy, you get to live twice, don’t you? Once as a person and once as a tree.’ I think that’s gorgeous.”

Australian Ninja Warrior season six airs Monday June 27, 7:30pm on Channel 9 and 9Now.

You can read this story and many others in the July issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now

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