Hometown celebrates Olympic champ

Manitoba's skeleton hero Montgomery cheered by thousands

By JASON HALSTEAD, QMI Agency

RUSSELL, Man. -- "Mission Montgomery" came full circle Sunday in Russell as more than 6,000 people packed the town's Main Street to salute hometown Olympic hero Jon Montgomery.

Support for the skeleton racerıs dream come true kicked off in Russell last year with a fundraising sendoff party. Then town residents watched en masse as the 30-year-old took his flawless final run Feb. 19 that carried him to the gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games in Whistler, B.C.

On Sunday, people from across Manitoba and beyond gathered to salute the red-haired racer, capping his ride to fame with a genuine expression of hometown love.

"Itıs something Iıll never forget," Montgomery told the crowd and dignitaries gathered to honour him at the townıs hall after the parade.

"Thank you so much for making me feel so proud of being from here and being a Canadian."

The fun-loving, fast-talking Montgomery quickly attracted high-profile attention after his victory on Blackcomb Mountain last month, even appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Well-wishers packed streets Sunday in the town about 350 km northwest of Winnipeg near the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary -- swelling the town's population fivefold -- to catch a glimpse of Montgomery as he rode a horse-drawn float with his girlfriend Darla Deschamps at his side, shaking hands with excited parade-watchers.

Communities from all around Russell and into Saskatchewan came out to cheer Jon, as did 10 busloads of school kids from Winnipeg and dozens of politicians from all over the province.

"We're very proud of Jon and this whole community," said the skeleton racerıs dad, Eldon, a retired school teacher. "It just blows your mind -- I think that's the way Jon would put it. Itıs overwhelming and pretty humbling."

As was the story with many other former Russell residents, Montgomeryıs glory sparked Denis Dyckıs homecoming.

"It's an amazing story," said Dyck, who now lives in Brandon but was born and raised in Russell and taught by Montgomeryıs dad. "Jon's such a personable guy and very down-to-earth. Everybody is somebody to him and that really comes across to me."

His post-victory march through crowds in Whistler with a pitcher of beer in hand endeared him to many and provided one of the games' lasting images.

Versions of the famous pitcher appeared several times in the parade of more than 100 floats down the townıs decorated main drag.

Regina resident Kelly Hall, who has a cabin at nearby Asessippi, came to Russell for the celebrations and couldnıt resist buying Montgomery a beer when she spotted him at a local bar Saturday.

"I figured that should be the first thing when he gets into the pub, so I went and grabbed him a beer and said 'Congratulations'," Hall said. "He was humble and said 'Thank you' and seem surprised some stranger was buying him a beer, but Iım sure that's not the first time itıs happened."

Funds for the $40,000 celebration were raised from local businesses and in the surrounding community, both in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and through T-shirts sold by organizers. Manitoba Lotteries and Sport Manitoba have also kicked in cash.

"What a way to conclude what we started for Jon in May," said organizing committee member Daymon Guillas.

jason.halstead@sunmedia.ca

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