February 18, 2006
Legends of the fall
Wipeouts turn into medals

BARDONECCHIA, Italy -- One day it was Jeffrey Buttle, the next it was Dominique Maltais.

Suddenly, Canadians are falling, getting up, showing stunning grit and somehow winning bronze medals in big sports and small sports at the Winter Olympics.

Who would have thunk it?

Maltais, a firefighter from Montreal, managed her own kind of rescue on the snowboard cross course in the Italian Alps yesterday. She crashed badly in the four-woman final, slid off course, whipped into the blue safety netting , looked like a new opening for Wide World Of Sports and all but assumed that her race and her medal opportunities were over.

"I didn't think I could finish, let alone finish third," Maltais said. "I thought it was over. I thought I missed a gate. I didn't think I could get up and finish. I was alone on the course, but I just wanted to get up."

It was somehow akin to a heavyweight contender coming off the canvas and knocking out an opponent well ahead in the late rounds.

It was somehow akin to Buttle not allowing a slip to undermine an otherwise gigantic performance in the men's figure skating long program the night before.

It was unlike so much of what we've been accustomed to seeing from too many Canadian athletes over too many years. In no short order, Maltais figured out where she was, shook off the cobwebs, got back on her feet, climbed uphill to not miss the gate she believed she missed -- "that's so tiring," she said -- then skied slowly to the finish line.

"It's pretty exciting to be on the podium," Maltais said in uncomfortable English. "I really thought: 'There goes my chance.'"

Within the first ever women's final of the strange world of snowboard cross, there were more twists and turns than usual on the complex course. The Canadian favourite, Maelle Ricker, crashed, was hospitalized and didn't finish the race. In the crowded stands here, friends and family wept for her misfortune.

Maltais' family and friends were all watching from home. Undoubtedly, they were as stunned as she was, to be in the race, out of the race, and on the podium, all within a matter of minutes.

"That's boarder crossing," gold medal winner Tanja Frieden said, which is translation for explaining whatever seems unexplainable about this sport.

All that happened in the final was this: The favourite smashed out. The second fastest, Maltais, caught an edge and slammed into the mesh netting a la Herman Maier. The leader, Lindsey Jacobellis of Vermont, played the role of the anti-Rapunzel. She somehow managed to spin gold into silver. With a huge lead, Jacobellis tried a hotdog move to showboat, and wound up falling because of it, ending up winning silver and losing gold.

With all that going on, Frieden, of Switzerland, ended up with one of the great gift gold medals in Olympic snowboard history.

Maltais, for her part, was just thrilled to be on the podium, figuring an ambulance call wasn't as far away as she might have thought.

"For Dom to pull herself up like that was really impressive," said Mark Fawcett, the former Canadian competitor and now a national team coach. "You don't know how hard that is to do. You've got to get your composure. You get your equipment back together. You've got to get up and figure out where you are."

For Maltais, that was remarkable on its own. For the greater good of the Canadian Olympic movement, there was a tinge of disappointment, though, that a final that began with two Canadians, the two fastest all day, ended only in bronze. Gold and silver wasn't out of the question.

"I was counting on two Canadians bringing home medals," Fawcett said. "But they did phenomenal things here. Both of them."

One with a medal. One being checked out in hospital.

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ON THE PODIUM

GOLD

Tanja Frieden

Switzerland

SILVER

Lindsey

Jacobellis

USA

BRONZE

Dominique Maltais

Canada






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