Heil's chasing gold

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:08 PM ET

Jennifer Heil has a bull's eye on her back.

Being the two-time defending World Cup champion in freestyle skiing makes you the target of ever single competitor in the field, all of whom are trying to knock Heil off her elite perch.

But the Spruce Grove girl known on the circuit as Little Pepper is also chasing down something - the hunted becoming the hunter. It's a ways off, about five months into the future, yet the 2006 Winter Olympics can't help but creep into Heil's mind.

"Around January is when I'll start to really get more into it," said Heil recently before boarding a flight to Switzerland for the final training camp prior to the start of the World Cup schedule.

On February 11, Heil will hit the moguls run near Torino, Italy, as a heavy favourite to reach the medal podium. She's not there yet, mentally at least, yet even with her focus sternly set on preparation for the World Cup events to come, Heil is well aware what this year is all about.

REIGN AS WORLD CHAMPION

Another Crystal Globe rewarding her for continuing to reign as world champion would look nice in her trophy case, but nothing shimmers like gold hanging around the neck.

"I think it's good to keep it away from your mind for awhile but it is a good motivator. It's just a reality that it's out there," said Heil, who turned 22 at the beginning of October.

"It's too early to start focusing on it now, that won't come until late in January, but I do think about it. You have to because you want to be able to prepare yourself as best as you can. The advantage I have is that I have been to one Games before. I know what it all entails."

Heil put herself on the map at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, missing out on the medals by the slimmest of margins - 1/100th of a point from the bronze. Following a year away from the sport to heal injuries that had plagued her for years, Heil's improved training regimen and recaptured spirit sparked her to a surprising comeback in 2004 that saw her capture the World Cup crown.

A year later and buoyed by her sensational return, Heil went out and repeated the feat last season, becoming the first Canadian woman to win back-to-back world freestyle titles.

Her celebration was festive but short-lived.

The six-year veteran of the national team went back to Montreal, her off-season training centre, and set her sights on this campaign.

Back in the gym under the tutelage of Montreal Canadiens strength and conditioning co-co-ordinator Scott Livingstone and then off to Whistler, B.C., for some training on the glaciers before jetting to Australia to make use of the southern hemisphere's winter weather.

WORLD CUP EVENTS

Heil will make a short visit home at the end of October before making her way to Tignes, France, and Obertsdorf, Germany, for the opening events on the World Cup calendar. Of the two Canadian stops on the tour, there is the usual event at Mont Tremblant, Que., but Heil is particularly excited to see the entire season come to a conclusion at the Apex resort in Penticton, B.C.

Along the way the best in the rest of the world will be gunning for Heil.

Her response - bring it on.

"Three in a row? I'd love to do it. It's definitely a goal of mine," said Heil, who is developing a wicked full-twist backflip to her routine.

"I'm focused on what I do and I'm confident in the way I've prepared. Winning two doesn't mean you're going to win three but I'm going to continue to bring my best.

"What I did last year was nice but I still feel I can better myself. It's definitely a continuation for me. It's an upward climb but that's what motivates me. It's not about winning medals (at World Cups). I couldn't even tell you how many I've won. For me it's about being the best I can be. It's about my day-to-day performances.

''I want to ski faster, do some new tricks and jump better. What I've done in the past has set me up strong to move forward in the future."


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