Stand proud, Canada

TURIN -- An outstretched arm of a Norwegian coach provided the first piece of sporting magic for a less-than-magical Winter Games.

It was the kind of special moment that still exists almost exclusively in Olympic sport.

It was just a simple gesture. An arm from the crowd. A lifelong coach, Bjornar Hakensmoen, extending a ski pole to a Canadian woman who had broken her own. It meant Sara Renner and Beckie Scott could win a silver medal. It probably meant his own country did not.

That kind of snapshot is the Olympics at its best and most memorable. And those very snapshots -- the pictures, our own personal moments -- are what we take from each and every Games, all viewed through our own personal filters.

For Canadians, these were a rich and eventful Games, a stark contrast to the dreary grey of Turin. These Games didn't dance, didn't sing -- but they did eat well. And they took your breath away more often from the pollution than from any athletic excellence.

There may be few tearful goodbyes as the world says arrivederci Torino, but there were plenty of tears to go around at Canada's closing news conference early yesterday morning.

Normally at these planned events, there are excuses, spin and pleas for more government funding: Yesterday, it was pure excitement and chest-thumping.

The chef de mission, Shane Pearsall, cried when talking about the many successes of the Canadian athletes. His assistant, Sylvie Bernier, cried.

Canada, with a record 24 medals and a third-place overall finish, was crying tears of athletic joy in both official languages.

"It was a thrill just to be part of this," Pearsall said.

These were Canada's Games heading into Canada's own Olympics -- and when have we ever been able to say that before?

Not only were these the most winter medals we've ever won, but the most ever won by a single athlete. The historic 5-for-5 performance of the closing-ceremony flag- bearer, the forever understated Cindy Klassen, can never be underrated.

The most recent time Canada played host to an Olympics, the Calgary Games of 1988, we managed just five medals. But because of those Games and the legacy of the facilities left behind, the remarkable Klassen matched -- actually bettered if you consider she won a gold -- that total herself.

Eighteen years after the Calgary Games, 15 of Canada's 24 medal winners came from the training facilities left behind. Contrast that to Japan, which hosted the Winter Games only eight years ago in Nagano. Japan won 10 medals as the host country, one medal here.

"It shows we're doing something right," Canadian Olympic Committee president Chris Rudge said.

Klassen made five trips to the podium. But from these eyes, purely personal of course, Chandra Crawford and Clara Hughes are the champions I will remember most.

Crawford wrote the kind of Olympic story we can't help but fall in love with. Unknown and unexpected, she came from nowhere -- okay, she came from Canmore, Alta. -- to win gold in the cross-country sprint event. She won and celebrated every second, every moment. She probably is still celebrating now.

She lived and loved the excitement, brought a joy to her win that was raw, honest and purely emotional, revelled in her new-found celebrity status.

Crawford is a Canadian not to be forgotten.

And then Clara Hughes, who symbolizes everything that is best about Canadians and who we are, followed it up with the seventh and final gold medal in red and white.

With her, every one of her medals is a journey and a storybook all its own. Her fifth Olympic medal, her first gold, was the latest and the best of her growing legend.

"She is an amazing woman," said Johan Olav Koss, the legendary speed skater who started the Right To Play program. "You watch her race (on Saturday) and it was pure Clara. All fight and all heart. With two laps two go, I didn't think she had a chance. And then, a fantastic finish. A fantastic woman. That's Clara."

Those were the Canadian women at the Olympic Games. They were tied for first in most medals won by women at the Games -- 16. They were Klassen and Hughes and Jennifer Heil, who won gold on the first day and left before the last. They were a women's hockey team that obliterated any opposition. They were Dominque Maltais, a snowboarder, who fell, crashed into a fence, got back on her feet, climbed up a hill, and found her way down the course and on to the bronze-medal podium.

They were enough, by themselves, to soften the Canadian men's hockey disaster. Canadian teams of varying sports and status won medals in speed skating, long and short, and for the first time, gold in curling. They just never came close in men's hockey.

The sad irony on wrapup day was that the COC had predicted a medal count of 25, all the time assuming Canada would be somewhere on the men's hockey podium. The number finished at 24.

It is a number Canada can comfortably celebrate. And who would have believed that three weeks ago?