Heart of gold

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:36 AM ET

He's Canada's male athlete of the year, although top sportsman might be a more fitting description of Calgary's Kyle Shewfelt. The 22-year-old gymnast claimed a floor exercise gold medal at the Athens Games but won the hearts of sports fans across the globe when bungling judges swiped a bronze medal from around his neck after the next day's vault competition.

Shewfelt agreed yesterday that by handing him the Lionel Conacher Award, Canadian voters may have been recognizing his sportsmanship in the face of Olympic-sized injustice as much as praising his Athens victory.

"I think that is a contributing factor to it," Shewfelt noted after edging diminutive Tampa Bay Lightning sparkplug Martin St. Louis in award voting.

"I think I had a very successful competition. I left Athens feeling great but I think that a lot of people recognize that maybe I should have won a bronze medal in the vault.

"I don't think it was a sympathy vote but I think, as an athlete, I did show the sportsmanship that is required of an Olympic champion."

Calgary's sports fans might be shocked to think Shewfelt, relatively unknown prior to the Athens Games, could knock the likes of Flames sniper Jarome Iginla or PGA Tour sharpshooter Stephen Ames from the podium.

Both Calgarians obviously carry a higher profile, commanding untold TV time in two of our country's glamour sports.

Iginla's NHL playoff performance last spring, despite not winning the Stanley Cup, earned him consideration and Ames posted one of the best seasons by a Canadian on any pro tour.

But while outstanding years from Iginla and Ames made them both worthy candidates for the honour, Shewfelt's Athens performance married with his classy response to Olympic incompetence makes him a popular winner.

"For me, this Olympics wasn't necessarily about the medals, it was about having my best performances," he explained after the judging gaffe last summer.

"I control the things I can control. I try not to worry about those other things. I know gymnastics is a judged sport. I know that sometimes the ball isn't in your court. I was not really bothered by it.

"I don't look back on the Olympics and think of the vaulting thing, I think about how successful it was for me."

Shewfelt's rise to stardom is another classic case of overnight success that is years in the making. When the young bundle of energy was hopping off the family's furniture, his mother enrolled him into gymnastics as an outlet for the three-year-old's athleticism.

His first taste of international competition was as a 14-year-old in Austria and Hungary in 1996, although he never broke through internationally until the 2002 Commonwealth Games where he won two gold medals and a silver.

He gained momentum for the 2004 Olympics with two bronze medals at the 2003 world championships And he began gaining notoriety across this country and throughout the gymnastics world.

After the Athens Games, Shewfelt returned to Calgary last summer not only to a hero's welcome but to what he says was a noticeable spike in gymnastics participation across the country, thanks in part to his success.

He now finds almost every club in Canada is full of youngsters with Olympic dreams he hopes he helped inspire.

We already know he inspired them to keep athletic competition in perspective, win or lose.

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STAR IS BORN

2004 Athens Olympics: Won gold in the floor exercise. Became first Canadian to win an Olympic artistic gymnastic medal. Finished fourth in vault competition after disputed judge's decision.


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