Canucks jump to it

TURIN, Italy -- The locals may have thought it was a breeze blowing in from the Cottian Alps yesterday.

But it was actually one huge, Canadian sigh of relief, originating from the mountains at Bardonecchia.

This is what happens when a nation practises self-doubt as a national pastime, where international success is wished for, but rarely expected, and where being a spectator means holding your breath, along with your beer.

Let's face it: we're absolutely terrified of failure, particularly when we're the favourite in something.

So when Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., stood in the gate at the top of the moguls run yesterday, last one down the hill, stomachs were turning from Toronto to Turin.

"It's like watching your kids -- you're so nervous," Chris Rudge, the Canadian Olympic Committee's top dog, was saying. "My stomach was in a knot. I almost had to leave the room."

Rudge was part of a throng of Canadian supporters at Canada Olympic House, a friendly haven for hosers located in historic Palazzo Cavour in downtown Turin.

Built in 1729, this four-storey architectural marvel, formerly a palace, used to be the home of the Count of Cavour. Yesterday, it was more like the Palace of Paranoia.

Let's be honest: Canada needed to get off to a good start at these Winter Games the way the average Italian needs a cigarette.

If this team -- picked to win more medals than any in our history, remember -- was to cough and sputter during the first days, we can only imagine the kvetching that would have ensued.

You haven't forgotten Athens, have you?

That's where a poor start by our swimmers was exacerbated by a complete collapse by the rowers, leaving the Canadian team a quivering lump of jelly, scant days into the last Summer Games.

There's nothing like one or two underachievements to get everyone's underarms working overtime.

So Heil, the odds-on favourite in the moguls, may have faced more pressure than anybody on Team Canada, considering she was the first sure thing (in Canada, that means close your eyes and cross your fingers) out of the blocks.

Mess up, and it's, "Here we go again," followed quickly by, "Oh-my-god-who's-going-to-win-our-first-medal?"

Well, she didn't mess up, and you could almost feel the tension dissolve into the cool night air.

"The ship has left the dock!" Rudge proclaimed amid the cheers, standing beneath a 10-foot glass chandelier in what may well have been the Count's dining room years ago.

The flat-screen TVs looked a little out of place here, dwarfed by the 30-foot, sculpted ceiling, ornate wall carvings and massive wooden doors, but Rudge hopes the scene he was watching becomes commonplace: a Canadian atop the podium.

"It's fantastic for the Canadian team," he said. "It's exactly what we needed. We set some pretty ambitious goals for these Games ... this sort of sets the stage for everyone to follow."

The warm breeze of optimism wasn't just felt downtown, either, but way out in Sestriere, site of alpine, cross-country, bobsled, skeleton and luge.

"It's huge," alpine skier Kelly VanderBeek said. "To have a gold medal already, it's a very big deal. Here we go. Let's keep it going."

Who knows, maybe Heil's haul will breed success, the same way the Greek hiccup bred more hiccups.

"Especially when she's favoured, and she pulls through," luger Jeff Christie said. "It makes you feel like you can come through, too."

Christie, like Heil, is an Alberta resident, so there's also that karma going.

"I hope we can keep it going," he said. "There's a lot of Albertans on the team."

Right now, though, they're all just Canadians.

And, dare we say it, they're confident ones, too?