Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

24-carat Canadian gold

Moguls master makes history with top podium finish

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WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Canada's Olympic gold medal drought at home is finally over.

Freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau won the men's moguls crown at the Vancouver Olympics on Sunday night.

The 22-year-old from Rosemere, Que., wrote himself into the history books by overtaking defending champion Dale Begg-Smith -- a Canadian-born skier who competes for Australia.

It's the first time Canada has won a gold medal at its own Games. Canada failed to make it to the top of the podium in Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988.

"It's just the beginning, I think," said Bilodeau. "There are so many Canadians coming up in the other sports...

"I'll be in the stands cheering for them."

Skiing second from last, Bilodeau blew past Begg-Smith to take the lead with 26.75 points. He then had to wait to see the final run by Frenchman Guilbaut Colas, who ended up sixth.

Begg-Smith, the current World Cup leader, settled for silver with 26.58 points. American Bryon Wilson was third with 26.08.

Begg-Smith marched past reporters after the competition but said en route: "I skied the way I wanted to ski."

Vincent Marquis of Quebec City was fourth at 25.88 followed by Pierre-Alexandre Rousseau of Drummondville, Que., with 25.83.

"I'm very happy for him and I'm really proud that it's Alexandre that has won the first gold medal for Canada," said Rousseau.

Fans chanted "Canada! Canada!" as the gold medal went down to the wire at Cypress Mountain. Bilodeau's father Serge and older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, were in the stands as he made history.

"I know the sport so well and I knew when he crossed the finish line that it was the best run and no one could beat it," said Serge.

After the win, an emotional Bilodeau called brother Frederic "my inspiration."

His gold follows the silver won by teammate Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., on Saturday night and long-track speedskater Kristina Groves' bronze earlier Sunday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the stands for Heil's medal-winning performance. He spoke to Bilodeau by phone soon after his win. Harper told Bilodeau his was a "historic victory" and that "the entire country was proud and happy for him."

Bilodeau, who spoke to Harper as he was leaving the mixed zone, told the prime minister he was proud to be a Canadian and there was more to come at the Games.

Bilodeau, who was ranked fourth heading into the Games, threw his arms in the air in celebration as he stepped on the podium.

Since making his Olympic debut in 2006, Bilodeau's career has soared. He finished the 2005-06 season ranked second in the world and was named FIS rookie of the year. The following season he finished No. 3, and in 2007-08 he was No. 4.

Last season, he exploded on the World Cup hills, winning five golds and three silvers in nine starts en route to the overall title.

He had won medals in three events this season but gold had eluded him -- until Sunday. He said there's more to come from his Canadian teammates at the Games.

"It's just the beginning of a good party in Canada," he said.

Asked last Monday about the possibility of winning Canada's first gold medal, Bilodeau said he was sure someone was going to do it before him. "I would bet a lot of money on the first day. I know somebody is going to do it before me."

Bilodeau did it one day later.

That freestyle skiing is Bilodeau's sport of choice should surprise no one. According to his bio on the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association website, the thrill-seeker would be a fighter jet pilot if he had to choose a different career.

That daredevil mentality is evident in his skiing style. Bilodeau is one of the sport's biggest risk-takers, often attempting the most difficult jumps and hurtling down the middle sections of the course with a recklessness that can either lead to high scores or spectacular wipeouts.

He has called Frederic the most inspiring person in his life.

"I never heard him once in my life complain about his condition -- never," he said prior to the Games. "He accepts it and he's done his best with it."

When Bilodeau was young, he often visited his brother's school for children with special needs and was struck by the students' courage.

"Where's my limit if those guys don't find any limit to what they can do?" Bilodeau asked. "That's a great inspiration."

Dominick Gauthier coaches both Heil and Bilodeau. He hopes that their accomplishments will be an inspiration to Canadians.

"It's so big for Canada," he said. "Since the beginning, and with Jenn yesterday, these Games are all about Canada. I want every young Canadian and (old) Canadian to be inspired by all of these athletes."

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2010 A10

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