Often over the past four years, during the hard times and during the quiet moments after training, Alexandre Bilodeau would ask his “big sister” Jennifer Heil what a gold medal feels like. And the woman who won Canada’s first Olympic gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics would say this to her friend and training partner: “Alex, you’ll know. There are no words for that.” And she was right, as 22-year-old Bilodeau, from the leafy Montreal suburb of Rosemère, now knows. In either official language there are no words appropriate for those rapturous early hours, just a jumble of feelings tinged with a sense of unreality, he would later reflect.
The answer came to him, appropriately enough for a revelation, from a mountaintop on the second night of competition. It came after he scorched down the Cypress Mountain moguls course in 23.17 seconds, bumping to second place Dale Begg-Smith, another Canadian, if an indifferent one, who races for his adopted country of Australia. It came after waiting to see if one last competitor, the formidable Frenchman Guilbaut Colas, could take his gold away.
When Colas’s marks were announced and the run fell short, Bilodeau leapt to his ski boots, pumped his fists and picked up a Canadian flag. He saluted the screaming crowd, their emotions jacked by patriotism, cans of Canadian beer and the realization they’d witnessed history: the first Olympic gold medal won by a Canadian on home soil. Almost literally home soil, for the surrounding weather-battered ski hills were pockmarked with patches of dirt and studded with exposed rocks. Michael Chambers, outgoing president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, would later liken it to Paul Henderson’s goal that sealed Canada’s victory at the 1972 hockey summit with Russia. “Where were you when Alex Bilodeau won the first gold medal on Canadian soil?” Chambers said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for one, was in Ottawa watching the event on TV with his family. He called Peter Judge, the chief executive officer of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. “Hey Alex, the Prime Minister is on the line, do you want to talk to him?” Bilodeau says, recalling the moment. Harper congratulated him on that elusive gold. “He said he’s really proud that we broke that curse. It’s done,” Bilodeau said. “I was saying, it’s an honour Mr. Prime Minister. It’s an honour to talk to you. I’m cheering for the other Canadians, I’m so proud to be Canadian.”
Technically, two Canadians were battling for that gold. There’s Bilodeau, who wears his patriotism on his sleeve and the maple leaf on his helmet. And there’s Vancouver-born Begg-Smith, who left Canada at 15 for Australia, slamming the door on the way out. He was both a skiing and computer prodigy. Australia, he has said, offered a chance to pursue in tandem his sport and the Internet businesses that have made him wealthy. He took out Australian citizenship and delivered his adopted country the gold medal in Turin and now a silver in Vancouver.
Begg-Smith’s conflicted relationship with his country of birth continued a day after the event. His coach Steve Desovich, almost certainly with Begg-Smith’s blessing, told the Australian press, “I thought Dale won.” The sport is both timed and judged, and he suggested the judging favoured the home-country hero. But Bilodeau executed a more technically difficult jump, and he beat Begg-Smith across the line by more than half a second. Bilodeau shrugged off the comments. “The only thing I control is my own performance. The only thing Dale controls is his own performance,” he said. “I have faith in the judges and I think Dale does, too.”
Well, maybe. Begg-Smith stood bitter and stone-faced beside an exuberant Bilodeau during the flower ceremony on the very mountain where he learned to ski. “A fascinating study of opposites,” the Australian newspaper The Age called it. “Two Canadians stood at the top of a mountain, as different as fire and ice.” Begg-Smith’s post-event sulk earned him some boos at the medal ceremonies in Vancouver, where he still lives much of the time. His sour attitude didn’t win much support in Australia, either. “It might be forgivable,” wrote Peter FitzSimons of the Sydney Morning Herald, “if there was the slightest sense he has more than a walnut’s worth of feeling for his adopted country.”
After his race, as soon as Bilodeau could, he rushed to the side of his family. They were all there, pinned against a crowd-control barrier: his father Serge Bilodeau, a one-time major junior hockey player, his mother Sylvie Michaud, his younger sister Béatrice, a skier herself and “a young Jenn Heil,” as Alexandre describes her. But first, he threw himself into the arms of his older brother Frédéric, his constant companion, his idol, his daily source of inspiration. His first words to Frédéric, who’d turned 29 on Feb. 8 while he was training, were, “Happy birthday, I love you.”
Frédéric, stricken with cerebral palsy, stood for most of the event, leaning against the metal barricade, shouting support, waving his hands clad in red Olympic mittens. Afterwards, it was when speaking of Frédéric that the dam broke on Alexandre’s welling emotions. He fought tears as he talked about the impact his brother has had on his life. Frédéric, in spirit at least, was on the podium with him, he said. And in no small way that’s true. If not for Frédéric, Alexandre might well have continued playing hockey, a sport he was passionate about as a young boy.
But hockey excluded Frédéric from the activities of a tight-knit family. It was Sylvie who steered Alexandre out of skates and onto skis as a young tyke. “It was more accessible for the family to get involved in skiing,” Frédéric said in a broadcast interview. It wasn’t an easy decision for the boy, or for Serge, who had been a skilled player and wanted Alexandre to have the same opportunity. “My mom won the fight like always,” Alexandre says. He excelled from the beginning. It helped his enthusiasm that as a seven-year-old, he watched on television as fellow Quebecer Jean-Luc Brassard won the gold medal at the Games in Lillehammer in 1994, the year freestyle moguls became a full Olympic event.
Above all, skiing let him play with his big brother. They were always close, despite the difference in age and abilities. It is on snow that gravity is Frédéric’s ally and not a force to overcome. Recently, however, his mobility has declined and he’s had to give up the sport he loves. “He was capable even to ski such a short time ago,” says Serge. Walking has also become more difficult. He fell two weeks ago, breaking a middle finger. “Sometimes he completely forgets how difficult it is for him to walk,” Serge told a reporter. Still, he tries, staying out of a wheelchair whenever he can. Doctors had warned the family that Frédéric would likely lose the ability to walk by age 10. “He still walks,” says his brother, defiantly. “So where’s the limit for each of us?”
Testing limits is what got Bilodeau to Cypress Mountain. It’s seen him through long hours of training, on snow, in the gym, off jumps into water pools in the summer. It’s caused trips to the “puke bucket” that he and Heil share during their brutal workouts. The bucket has become a symbol of all they’ve put into the sport, and at what cost.
There are days when it all seems too much, and then he thinks of Frédéric, and what it takes for him just to get out of bed. There are no medals for that, nor for his unconditional support, nor for his unstinting good cheer. How can you quit training then, when all you are is tired; when all you’ve done is heave up your lunch? “He has all the right to complain and he never complains,” says Alexandre. “It puts everything back in perspective.” It helps, too, that he trains with Heil, who shares his focus and his intensity. “She one of the best athletes in the world, the best I know personally, the best athlete I’ve seen,” he says. “The number of sacrifices she does in training, on snow, out of snow and in personal life is tremendous.”
Heil learned of Bilodeau’s gold when she was backstage at the victory ceremony at B.C. Place, where she had just received her silver medal for her second-place finish a night earlier. She phoned Dominick Gauthier, her boyfriend, and the coach she shares with Bilodeau. Gauthier was still up the mountain and had yet to reach Bilodeau himself. “She called me right away,” Gauthier says. “Crying, of course.” Some 25 missed messages later, she finally reached him—in doping control—with teary congratulations.
The partnership goes far beyond sweat equity and mutual support. “There is no one who can win an Olympic medal alone,” says Bilodeau. Behind him is a machine, some of it powered by Canada’s $117-million Own the Podium program, and some of it coming with the quiet support of members of Quebec’s business elite—people with names like Desmarais and Bronfman. For the latter, Heil and Gauthier can claim no small credit.
Heil says her victory in Turin was the result of a group of sponsors in Alberta, her home province, and Quebec, were she lives. The sponsors, silent partners really, were assembled with the help of Gauthier and their friend and mentor J.D. Miller, a well-connected Montreal mergers and acquisitions specialist. They underwrote the cost of specialized coaching, nutrition and physical therapists. After Turin, the program expanded to become B2ten, the “B” standing for a business approach to results-based assistance. It has since raised more than $3 million to meet specialized needs for about 20 elite athletes competing in Vancouver, a tight-knit group including speed skater Christine Nesbitt and bobsledder Helen Upperton.
Combined with that is the funding of Own the Podium, and its $8-million offshoot, the Top Secret program. Top Secret underwrote a bio and neuro feedback program run by Ottawa-based sports psychologist Penny Werthner. Bio measures the physical, and neuro the brain’s responses, to stress. In Bilodeau’s case, he says it trained him to ease his tension and increase his focus.
Race day began with a breakfast of yogourt, bananas, orange juice and peanut butter toast. He arrived at the start gate; his coach swallowed his own jitters, projecting nothing but comfort and confidence. “When he was there on top I couldn’t do anything else but tell him how ready he was for this,” Gauthier said. Bilodeau recalls thinking how weird it was to feel both nervous and totally calm. He breathed the way he was taught: through his shoulders, through his legs, through his mind, as he puts it. Each part of his body loosened and his mind cleared of the past and the future. And of extraneous thoughts about gold medals and curses. There was only this moment and that hill, and 23 seconds to deliver on four years of work and dreams.
Viewed from the top, the hill is a beast. A crazy pitch, and two sets of jumps separated by a minefield of mogul bumps. Freestyle Canada’s Peter Judge, who skied in the Calgary Olympics, says the speed and acrobatics today were inconceivable in his time. “It scares me to watch how fast they’re going,” he said at a post-event news conference. Below, Bilodeau’s father watched the run and he knew that it was golden before the event finished. “It’s not possible to describe,” Serge said, sounding much like his son. “I knew when he crossed the finish line that it was the best run and no one could beat it.”
Later, Alexandre would urge reporters to get a grip on all the hype of this first gold. There will be many Canadian golds, he predicted, and the first is worth no more than the last. By that he meant all golds. But just maybe the kid who quit hockey was also hoping the last would be won with sticks and a puck. It would be a sweet moment to reflect on the life-changing sacrifice he made for his brother and his family, and all that work and wonder that brought him to the mountaintop.