Tue, August 26, 2008

Carol can't stop smilin'

Wide-eyed Huynh still dealing with new celebrity status

By ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media


Olympic gold medallist Carol Huynh shows off her hardware shortly after stepping off an airplane at the Calgary International Airport on Monday. (Sun Media/Lyle Aspinall)

For many Canadians, hers was the face of the games.

A face we're sure to see more of following Carol Huynh's stirring gold medal stance atop the podium in Beijing.

It was there the 27-year-old wrestler essentially ended Canada's seven-day medal drought by listening to the national anthem with tears in her eyes and a hand over her mouth in disbelief.

Millions here at home wept along with pride -- a reaction she's been made acutely aware of despite spending the last five days of the games vacationing in Thailand with her husband.

"I've had some time to reflect on it and I'm really touched that moment reached out and touched people in Canada and other places as well," said Huynh moments after being welcomed home at Calgary International Airport by vociferous friends and family members yesterday.

"I'm just glad people can really feel what I and other athletes feel. It can translate into not just sports but anybody's dreams. It's a really cool feeling."

As for what she was thinking while O Canada reduced a nation to a puddle:

"I was just really happy to be given the opportunity to represent Canada and proud to be a Canadian," said the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants.

"To be honest, partway through I was trying to remember which part of the Canadian anthem we were at and it's like, 'OK, I've got to start singing now.'"

What she has to do now, while taking the next few months off to relax and soak in the enormity of her accomplishment, is map out how she'll parlay her gold into endorsement dollars. Yes, it's a whole new world for the humble, soft-spoken girl whose dreams were born in small-town Hazelton, B.C. where the United Church sponsored her refugee parents.

"This is different," laughed the petit, 48-kg grappler of the circus of media-types and well-wishers around her.

"Life changing? I think I'm just kind of realizing that right now because of all this. I'm not really sure what to expect but I'm excited and I'll enjoy my five minutes of fame or whatever it gives me."

Relying almost completely on her husband's social worker salary and the federal funding she received while training out of the University of Calgary, Huynh has only had one sponsor in her life -- Rona, which gave 100 athletes a modest financial lift. Given her touching ascent to glory she's sure to attract additional interest as she's sure to embark on a motivational speaking career.

"I realize I'm in a position to be a role model for young people and I'm really looking forward to that," she smiled.

"When I was back home in Hazelton in April my biggest message was that even someone from such a small place can go big places."

Amen.

"She's going to be great," said coach Leigh Vierling, who hoisted Huynh on his shoulders after her gold-medal win. "You can see she's dynamic, charismatic but she's also a very humble and a caring person. When she tells a story people are going to listen."

And boy has she got a tale to tell.

"Carol is actually quite shy -- when we got off the plane in Vancouver people were recognizing her and she said she really started to sweat it," said husband Dan Biggs while Huynh signed autographs.

"Security confiscated her medal in Vancouver and everyone started to gather around. It was surreal."

Huynh says she'll definitely continue wrestling for at least one more year but says it's far too early to think about 2012 in London. For now, she's more interested in savouring the medal that hangs around her neck -- even if the ribbon it hangs on is frayed.

"Actually it started fraying from the very first day," she laughed. "I don't know how much longer I'll be wearing it for."

She paused before breaking into that million-dollar smile.

"Okay I'll be wearing it for awhile."

As she should.

MEDAL COUNT

VOICES FROM THE GAMES