The Red Rocket

From Prairie boy auctioneer to Canada’s most lovable hero

The Red Rocket

Is it his name—Jon Montgomery—which sounds ever so slightly old-fashioned, something you’d see etched in a memorial somewhere in the Canadian heartland? Or his clipped no-nonsense speech and compact frame, which are oddly anachronistic, as though he’s stepped from a First World War portrait, sepia and fading? Or is it his beer-drinking? That spontaneous moment when the 30-year-old Montgomery, who’d surprised us all by striking gold in men’s skeleton, stepped from a gondola in Whistler, into a throng of waiting thousands, and lustily accepted a pitcher of brew thrust at him from some anonymous woman—watching him gulp back that liquid the colour of his triumph seemed so perfect, primal and clean.

The Whistler crowds were ecstatic over the mountain resort’s first Canadian medal, and Montgomery, with his red hair and scrub of red beard, was just the man to channel their ferocious Olympic enthusiasms, and those of Canadians everywhere: a delighted everyman who started off the evening’s festivities by striking his ta-dah! pose—after jumping, both feet in the air, atop the podium—then led an impromptu parade through the gabled pedestrian streets of this tourist town. The next day, receiving his medal, Montgomery unabashedly belted out a bad O Canada from the stage, living the dream for armchair competitors across the land.

It was as much a celebration of good times as of heroic athleticism, and a timely balm for a Canadian soul in tatters after some disappointing performances in the first week of the Olympics. That very night, 29-year-old Mellisa Hollingsworth, favoured to win a medal in the women’s skeleton, had clunked in at fifth, while Montgomery’s teammate, 38-year-old Mike Douglas, was disqualified over the technical snafu of failing to remove the covers from his runners.

We ate Montgomery’s victory up: though the golden performance arrived on a Friday night—very late in Eastern Canada—4.6 million of us watched, making it one of those rare moments in today’s shattered TV universe in which a sizable portion of Canadians experienced the same live, unpredictable event together.

Lucky for us, there was something deeply appealing about the man we tuned in to see win—Jonathan Riley Montgomery, from Russell, Man. (population 1,700), was named after two hockey players (’70s-era Boston Bruin goons Stan Jonathan and Terry O’Reilly) whom his father, a teacher, identified as the most ruthless pair of pugilists in the NHL; Jon himself grew up playing hockey. A proud Canadian, he wears his patriotism less on his sleeve than over his heart, where he had a maple leaf tattooed as a teenager (his mother, who went with him, got a butterfly on her ankle).

He now lives in Calgary, makes his living auctioning off used cars with a rapid-fire delivery most of us still associate with cattle and country fairs, and made no bones about his efforts to paint Whistler red after his Friday night victory. “I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and running on adrenalin,” Montgomery, who admitted to staying up until 5 a.m., joked on Saturday. “I haven’t had an opportunity to do anything but brush my teeth and comb my hair. Well, I didn’t actually comb my hair.” (It was said to be less a beer than a champagne evening, spent with family and close friends.)

“I’m not going to lie to you, that was a pretty smashing time,” he went on to say. “You can’t not live in the moment. You know it’s not going to happen again. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will be the pinnacle, I’m sure, of my sporting career because I’ll never have another opportunity to compete in the Olympics at home in front of Canadians. That was the be-all and end-all for me.” Nor, it seems, were these the first beers of the season for an athlete preparing—fun banished, life put on hold—for Olympic glory. “I don’t subscribe to necessarily all the things typical athletes do,” he told reporters that next morning. “For me, a pint now and then is a good thing.”

Skeleton—in which competitors, using sleds little more substantial than cafeteria trays, throw themselves headfirst down tubes of ice, reaching speeds that top 145 km/h—came into Montgomery’s life in 2002, when he discovered it on a visit to Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park. The sport had just been re-slated for Olympic competition after a 54-year hiatus, and Montgomery always did harbour gold-medal dreams, having abandoned earlier experiments with speed skating and bobsleigh. Now he latched on to skeleton, setting his sights on the Games after the IOC awarded them to Vancouver in 2003. His career since has been varied. Over several years he raced in the America’s Cup competitions, where up and comers cut their chops. Though he didn’t qualify for Turin, he won four World Cup medals the following season and a world championship silver.

The Red RocketIt was slower for him last year—he won just one medal, a World Cup gold in Whistler, permitting him to arrive at the Vancouver Olympics somewhat under the radar—a hopeful candidate on a men’s skeleton team with few serious prospects. But Montgomery had a different view. Last September, he and some friends on the Canadian team consulted a sports shaman in Revelstoke, B.C., who, among other things, identified each athlete’s animal spirit. Montgomery learned his ally in that other world is the turtle; he promptly enlisted Vancouver native artist Phil Gray to paint the animal on his helmet.

A turtle? It’s an image that did little to prepare us for what happened next. Montgomery captured his first-place finish seven hundredths of a second ahead of leader and gold-medal favourite Martins Dukurs of Latvia. For sheer breakneck drama, little could beat it. The man we’ll now forever know as Monty charged down the corridor of white at the top of the Whistler Sliding Centre and hopped on that speeding bullet with all the economy and aplomb of a gunslinger drawing his pistol. Trailing the 25-year-old Dukurs by 0.18 seconds following the third heat, Montgomery got off to a half-second lead over his nearest competitor in the final run, Russian racer Alexander Tretyakov, 24. Then, flying down the ice, Montgomery spun his magic, stretching that 0.5 lead into 0.6, then 0.8 until, slipping into home, he stood and waited for the final time. The crowd held its breath. When the 1.06 seconds he now held over Tretyakov popped up on the JumboTrons dotting Blackcomb Peak, the Canadians in the crowd went mad. Montgomery had secured the silver, that was for sure, but what would Dukurs, racing last in this final heat, do?

The Latvian, the skeleton man to beat, began strong, maintaining a lead of a quarter of a second or so over Montgomery’s start. Then Dukurs hit a wall—what he would later call his “black corner,” explaining that “all training I was fighting with this curve”—and oozed ever so sluggishly out of the seventh turn. The Latvian’s lead had bled away before the crowd’s eyes.

Standing by a huddle of reporters as Dukurs slipped through a massive band of white on the JumboTron above, Canadian Jeff Pain, the 39-year-old vet who, moments earlier, had finished his final Olympics in ninth place, gasped. “He’s got the gold!” he said. Pain was right. With Dukurs’s race over, the final pronouncement: on screens around Whistler, a +.07 slipped into view, signalling the victor. “I lost my mind when I saw the +.07,” Montgomery later said, “like I put my finger in the light socket.” For Pain, who in 2006 lost the top spot on the podium in Turin to fellow Canadian Duff Gibson, settling for silver, and who will now retire, it must have been bittersweet. Watching Montgomery, a Prairie kid from southwest Manitoba going against the grain of geography by throwing himself into the steep dives and wicked turns of skeleton, seize his golden moment and pump the air—Pain himself had come to the end of the line. What next for the tall, red-headed Calgarian? “I don’t know,” he said. “Curling? Ballroom dancing?”

Meanwhile, the crowds in the stands looking over the finish line had started chanting “Monty.” Right after taking the podium, Montgomery allowed that “a pint” was in his immediate future. How would his gold medal change his life? He rejected the question. “I’ve got doping, then I hope a beer, then tomorrow’s a blank slate,” he said. “It’s a good unknown. I’ll take it any day.” The turtle had made it across the finish line.