SAUZE D’OULX, Italy — Jennifer Heil had just won an Olympic gold medal under the lights with a full moon hanging over the venue and a smile on her face otherwise lighting up the Italian night.
Then, suddenly, the sourest expression transformed her face and the beam and gleam left her eyes.
Heil was being introduced to climb on top of the flower presentation podium.
“The gold medallist ... from the United States of America ...’’
Yeah, those people in Spruce Grove, Wisconsin, are certainly proud of her today.
“I was a little disappointed by the P.A. announcer making that mistake. Hopefully they will raise the Canadian flag instead of the American one,’’ she said of tonight’s medal presentations down in Turin.
Other than that, it was a wonderful way to begin what are supposed to be Canada’s most successful Olympic Games ever. The teenager who missed winning a medal by 1/100th of a second four years ago in Salt Lake, who grew up to become a wonder woman in moguls skiing, yesterday stood up as Canada’s Torino 2006 lead-off hitter and knocked it out of the park.
The great grin was back on Heil’s face as she searched the crowd from her perch on the podium, looking for her mom and dad and other family members in the stands.
“My whole family is here. I couldn’t see them. But I could hear them screaming my name. They believed in me and supported me like when I moved away at 17 and phoned home crying. It’s so great to share this with them.’’
That was the first thing Heil thought of as she stood there on the podium, where only flowers, not medals, are presented on site.
“I couldn’t believe it had happened. My whole life, since I was six, I dreamed of this. That’s what I thought about. There were so many people behind me. There were so many people who believed in me and got me here.’’
As soon as she climbed off the podium, Heil ran through the snow, jumped over a snow fence and into the arms of her coach, Murray Cluff. When I asked him about it, Cluff broke down and cried. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“That was incredible for her to do that. Suddenly she was over the fence and our eyes met and everything just sort of melted away. It was a wonderful experience,’’ said the Cochrane coach.
Heil won despite being a little iffy in the final couple bumps. Her score of 26.50 won gold ahead of Norway’s Kari Traa, who scored 25.65 to win the silver.
“To be honest with you, I was on pins and needles up there,’’ said Cluff of watching the race from the start line.
“The middle section was the best I’ve ever seen skied. But right at the end there ...’’
Agonizing to wait
It was agonizing to wait and see if the minor mistakes at the end would cost her gold, maybe even cost her a medal.
“When I saw ‘1’ flash on the board, I couldn’t believe it was real,’’ said Heil.
Four years ago it was Traa winning the Olympic gold. The silver here gave her the entire collection, gold, silver and bronze for her career which ended here yesterday.
“She was my idol. I’ve had the honour of competing with Kari. She’s a great competitor and a great person. She’s pushed the sport so far and it’s an honour to be up here with her,’’ said Heil, the defending back-to-back World Cup champion who now, in every way, wears the crown as the queen of bumps and jumps.
But for a second there ...
“I actually made a few mistakes at the finish line,’’ said Heil.
Traa wasn’t questioning that she should have won in the sport, which is scored partially by time and partially by judging.
“I’m happy with my silver,’’ she said.
Heil was over the moon about the gold but wasn’t the emotional mess of her coach.
You get the feeling that the emotion will come out tonight when they drape the medal over her head and she stands in her Canadian podium clothes to listen to O Canada, making the giant assumption they don’t play the Star Spangled Banner.
Heil can finally wear those clothes.
“When we got our Olympic clothing, I put the podium clothes behind a suitcase. I didn’t want to look at it,’’ she laughed.
Now Canada will be watching her wear those clothes. People in the U.S.A., too.
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