Medal mogul: Bilodeau brings home the gold

Watching on television in Whistler, British Columbia, a crowd cheers after Alexandre Bilodeau of Canada won the moguls at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

VANCOUVER - For Canada, it was a golden Games moment 34 years in the making — and it very nearly went Down Under with a Canadian-born Aussie.

Men's moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, 22, of Rosemere, Que., embraced the unlikely mantle of national hero Sunday after wrenching the first Olympic gold medal to be won on home soil by a Canadian away from top-ranked rival Dale Begg-Smith, who was born in Vancouver but competes for Australia.

The win not only gave the host country its first gold of the 2010 Games, but also prevented a long-awaited moment in Canadian sporting history — Canada was denied gold both in Montreal in 1976 and again in Calgary in 1988 — from permanently dissolving into an Olympic-sized blow to the national psyche.

"It's the best feeling you could have; it's a dream realized," Bilodeau said of the win, which he insisted would be just the first of many more gold medals for Canada's Olympic team.

"It's just the beginning of the party."

Congratulations rolled in from across the country, including from Quebec Premier Jean Charest, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. "Canadian families across the country are proud of you, Alex," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told him in a phone call.

Begg-Smith was sitting in the catbird seat — in this case, the first-place position among the fluffy white beanbag chairs where the top three in the standings ride out the remainder of the competition — when Bilodeau, the night's second-last skier, blistered the bumps and sailed coolly off the kickers.

The mayhem that ensued sparked a joyous mood at Cypress that was decidedly more upbeat than Saturday, when a less-satisfying silver went to women's moguls skier Jennifer Heil — the original owner of the 'Most Likely to Make Canadian Olympic History in Vancouver' label.

The diminutive Bilodeau punched the air with his fists and gave an elated crowd the thumbs up as he ascended the podium. Begg-Smith, thin-lipped and dejected, managed only a scowl as he took second place.

"I think it was great that Canada won gold," the silver medallist offered later. "The crowd was really happy with it and everybody went crazy."

At B.C. Place, where thousands were gathered for the nightly medal ceremony to fete the previous day's winners, the crowd jumped to its feet when Bilodeau's victory was announced.

Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, called the medal a "unique moment in time and pride" for Canada, and even likened it to what's been called the most important goal in Canadian hockey history: Paul Henderson's winning marker in the 1972 Summit Series.

"It will be one of those Paul Henderson moments: 'Where were you when Alex Bilodeau won the first gold medal on Canadian soil?'" Chambers said.

"It gets everyone on the team fired up. The flame is going to burn even hotter inside them now. They'll say, 'I can do it too.'

Roger Jackson, head of Own The Podium, Canada's $117-million strategy to finish atop the medal count in Vancouver, said he's confident the gold will come as both a relief and an inspiration. "I think it will be great momentum for the Canadian team."

Indeed, Bilodeau's fellow Canadian competitors were thrilled to hear the monkey was finally off their back.

"He made Canada proud and took the heat off us," said curling skip Cheryl Bernard. "Canada's going to love that. That might even put us on a really good roll."

Cross-country skier Chandra Crawford, who won gold in Turin, Italy, in 2006, used Twitter to express her team's delight. "Yeah Alex!" the 26-year-old from Canmore, Alta., tweeted. "The nordic crew is so stoked for you!"

The gold might well have been the day's most satisfying medal, but it wasn't Canada's only trip to the podium.

Earlier, Canada's speedskating sweethearts were showered with love from the home crowd, whose Valentine's Day affections were quickly requited with a bronze medal from Ottawa long-tracker Kristina Groves.

Groves, 33, earned a warm bear hug from her fellow Canadian racer, the flame-haired flag-bearer Clara Hughes, after gutting out a bronze-medal finish in the women's 3,000 metres at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

"It just gave me goosebumps, just listening to the crowd," Groves said of how the fans supported the Canadian skaters.

"I've never really experienced the crowd that loud for Canada. I've raced in all places where it’s been that loud, but never for Canada, so that was really wonderful. It was deafening, just deafening."

Czech Martina Sablikova claimed the gold and Stephanie Beckert of Germany the silver while Hughes, from Glen Sutton, Que., was fifth in what was the second-last race of her career. Winnipeg's Cindy Klassen, a five-time medallist in Turin, finished 14th.

"I got to watch my training partner, my teammate and my friend skate the 3,000-metre race of her life and come in third and win the bronze medal and it was beautiful," Hughes gushed afterward.

"It was a great day for our team."

Outside, the persistent Vancouver rain of the last few days gave way to brilliant sunshine, helping to soften some of the deeper furrows in Canada's collective brow after an Olympic start already plagued by more than its fair share of bad weather and bad luck.

On Sunday, however, there was still plenty of both to go around.

Mother Nature was wreaking havoc at Whistler's Olympic Village, where no less a dignitary than Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean got a first-hand taste of just how wet a B.C. winter can get.

"I don't mind the rain," Jean told a group of umbrella-covered athletes who were gathered to talk about the importance of the Olympic spirit.

The lesson was not lost on Jean-Philippe LeGuellec.

The 24-year-old biathlete from Quebec City battled through rain, sleet and then wet snow to finish sixth in the men's biathlon 10-kilometre sprint, a result officials called one of Canada's best in years.

"All in all it was an awesome race, and I'm really happy," the soaking-wet LeGuellec said after struggling through a snow squall in the last kilometre of his race.

He might have placed higher — perhaps even in the medals — but for a single missed shot in the second round of shooting. LeGuellec and his coach nonetheless billed the finish as one of the best in the history of Canadian men's Olympic biathlon.

Women's downhill ski training was cancelled yet again, along with the super-combined race. Men's downhiller Manuel Osborne-Paradis, 26, remained the odds-on best bet for Canada's next gold medal, assuming weather allowed the event to proceed Monday.

In the sporting vernacular, Vancouver's 2010 Games didn't exactly get off to a clean start.

The grim fortunes began with the shocking fatal crash Friday of a 21-year-old Georgian luger, a tragedy that put a damper on the opening ceremonies later that night. A malfunction with the Olympic cauldron at the most critical moment of the proceedings didn't help matters.

On Saturday, protesters ran riot in downtown Vancouver, smashing store windows and clashing with police. That night, Heil won silver, but had difficulty concealing the fact she'd had her heart set on giving her country its first gold medal on home soil.

Then on Sunday, there remained lingering headaches from Friday's spectacle, including questions in Quebec about a shortage of French-language content and complaints from spectators about the chain-link fence surrounding the outdoor Olympic flame in downtown Vancouver.

And, in the adding-insult-to-injury department, organizers were forced Sunday to temporarily close the general admission area of the snowboarding venue at Cypress Mountain because of safety concerns caused by rain. The $50 ticket price will be refunded to the approximately 8,000 spectators affected.

Nodar Kumaritashvili's death was also still casting a long shadow.

The tragedy amplified persistent and long-standing fears that the Whistler Sliding Centre run was simply too dangerous, prompting race officials to slow it down by adjusting the ice profile and moving the starting lines for both men and women further down the mountain.

German medal contender Natalie Geisenberger likened the modified track to a preschool class.

"It's not a ladies start, it's a kinderstart," she sneered. "We trained the whole summer and we are strong and fast, and now the fastest sliders are slow. It's not good for us. It's not fun."