Freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau wins Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal on home soil
VANCOUVER — Finally. Canada claimed its first-ever Olympic gold medal on home soil Sunday as freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau of Rosemere, Que., blistered the men’s moguls run at Cypress Mountain and narrowly edged out top-ranked Dale Begg-Smith, who originally hails from Vancouver but was representing his adopted home of Australia.
With the win, the 22-year-old not only gave Canada its first gold of the 2010 Games, but prevented what might well have been a national catastrophe of Olympic proportions: watching the honour of a Canadian winning gold in Canada go to someone who was competing for the competition.
The mood at Cypress was decidedly different than Saturday, when Canada’s first medal of the Games — a less-than-satisfying silver — went to women’s moguls skier Jennifer Heil.
After the race, the diminutive Bilodeau punched the air with his fists and gave an elated crowd the thumbs up, while a dejected-looking Begg-Smith refused to even crack a smile as he took second place on the podium.
Though it might well have been the day’s most satisfying medal, it wasn’t the first.
Earlier, the home-team fans showered their speedskating sweethearts with love, and promptly saw their Valentine’s Day affections requited with a bronze medal from Ottawa long-tracker Kristina Groves.
Groves, 33, earned a warm bear hug from her fellow Canadian racer, the flame-haired flag-bearer Clara Hughes, after gutting out a bronze-medal finish in the women’s 3,000 metres at the Richmond Olympic Oval.
“It just gave me goosebumps, just listening to the crowd,” Groves said.
“I’ve never really experienced the crowd that loud for Canada. I’ve raced in all places where it’s been that loud, but never for Canada, so that was really wonderful. It was deafening, just deafening.”
Czech Martina Sablikova claimed the gold and Stephanie Beckert of Germany the silver while Hughes, of Glen Sutton, Que., participating in the second-last race of her career, was fifth. Winnipeg’s Cindy Klassen, a fivetime medallist at the 2006 Turin Games, finished 14th.
“I got to watch my training partner, my teammate and my friend skate the 3,000-metre race of her life and come in third and win the bronze medal and it was beautiful,” Hughes gushed afterward. “It was a great day for our team.” Outside, the persistent Vancouver rain of the last few days gave way to brilliant sunshine, helping to soften some of the deeper furrows in Canada’s collective brow after an Olympic start that has already been plagued by more than its fair share of bad weather and bad luck.
An hour’s drive away, Mother Nature was playing familiar havoc at Whistler’s Olympic Village, where no less a dignitary than Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean got a firsthand taste of just how wet a B.C. winter can get.
“I don’t mind the rain,” Jean told a group of umbrella-covered athletes who were gathered to talk about the importance of the Olympic spirit.
It was a lesson not lost on JeanPhilippe LeGuellec.
The 24-year-old biathlete from Quebec City battled through rain, sleet and then wet snow to finish sixth in the men’s biathlon 10-kilometre sprint, a result officials called one of Canada’s best in years.
“All in all it was an awesome race, and I’m really happy,” the soaking-wet LeGuellec said after struggling through a snow squall in the last kilometre of his race.
He might have placed higher — perhaps even in the medals — except for one missed shot in the second round of shooting, but LeGuellec and his coach billed the finish as being among the best results in the history of Canadian male biathlon racing at the Olympics.
And it came despite some of the most challenging conditions the racers have ever seen.
In the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, where the nordic, biathlon, nordic-combined and ski-jumping events are held, the snow was packed down but high humidity made the course slippery, forcing skiers to put up with a lack of training runs and a track that was not to their liking.
“Conditions here are hard, they’re changing all the time,” said cross-country skier George Grey.
Women’s downhill ski training had to be cancelled yet again, along with the super-combined race that had been scheduled for Sunday. Men’s downhiller Manuel OsborneParadis, 26, remained the odds-on best bet for Canada’s next gold, assuming weather allowed the event to proceed today.
The forecast for Whistler this week predicts mostly sunny skies, but the daytime high is expected in the range of 4 C, not the average -3 C normal at this time of year. In Vancouver, highs are predicted to reach up to a balmy 14 C. Organizers remained positive, despite the rising mercury, and pointed to the successful women’s mogul event Saturday night, where Canadian Jennifer Heil claimed the silver medal.
“Mother Nature is starting to smile on us,” said Renee SmithValade, VANOC’s vice-president of communications. “ We’re confident that the alpine events will go ahead.”
To borrow the Olympic vernacular, the 2010 Games didn’t exactly get off to a clean start. The grim fortunes began with the shocking fatal crash Friday of a 21-year-old Georgian luger, a tragedy that put a damper on Friday’s opening ceremonies. A malfunction with the Olympic cauldron at the most critical moment of the proceedings didn’t help matters.
Saturday, protesters ran riot in downtown Vancouver, smashing store windows and clashing with police. That night, Heil won silver, but had difficulty concealing the fact she’d had her heart set on giving her country its first gold medal on home soil.
Sunday, there remained lingering headaches from Friday’s spectacle, including questions about a shortage of French-language content and complaints from spectators about the chain-link fence surrounding the outdoor Olympic flame in downtown Vancouver.
Alexandre Bilodeau celebrates his gold medal win in the men’s mogul at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.