Alexandre Bilodeau carved his way into Canadian history Sunday at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
The 22-year-old from Rosemère, Que., became the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal at home, finishing first in the men's moguls skiing final at Cypress Mountain.
No Canadians won gold at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, and the country was shut out again at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. Over 500 Canadian athletes had missed reaching the podium's peak on home soil and Canada had been the only multiple Olympic host never to win gold at home.
"I don't think I've realized it yet," Bilodeau said in a CTV interview after his gold-medal performance. "It's just too good to be true, but there are so many golds to come. Canada is so strong right now."
Bilodeau's gold follows the valiant silver-medal efforts of Jennifer Heil in the women's moguls Saturday night. Long-track speedskater Kristina Groves won bronze earlier in the day.
A suspenseful final
On his final run, Bilodeau stood high above a sea of red as the cheers of "Canada! Canada!" rose at Cypress Mountain. Skiing second last in the finals, he needed a near-perfect run to knock off Australia's Dale Begg-Smith, the reigning Olympic champion, who was in first place.
With his country's hopes and prayers behind him, Bilodeau was ready. On his 23.17-second run into history, Bilodeau pulled off a perfect back-flip, knifed through the moguls and rocketed to the finish line. His score of 26.76 points catapulted him into first place, pushing aside Begg-Smith, a Canadian ex-patriate who grew up in B.C.
Only Guilbault Colas of France stood a chance of dethroning him, skiing last after winning the qualifying round. We held our breath, waiting for Colas's score to come: 25.74.
Bilodeau jumped, throwing his arms in the air, as the Cypress crowd roared.
Bilodeau's older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy, soaked in the moment from the stands with other family members. Through tears later, Bilodeau called his brother "my inspiration."
On the podium, Begg-Smith, who won the silver, stared straight ahead frowning as the cameras flashed. The wealthy internet entrepreneur marched past reporters after the competition but said en route: "I skied the way I wanted to ski."
American Bryon Wilson claimed the bronze, narrowly edging out Canada's Vincent Marquois, 25, of Quebec City.
Pierre-Alexandre Rousseau of Drummondville, Que., finished fifth. The 30-year-old was skiing in his first Olympics after 13 years with the national team, after a series of disappointments and injuries delayed his dream at the previous three Winter Games.
Maxime Gingras, 24, of St-Hippolyte, Que., rounded out an incredible Canadian performance, finishing 11th.
A consistent champion
Since his Olympic debut in 2006, Bilodeau's career has taken off.
He finished the 2005-06 season ranked second in the world and was named FIS rookie of the year. The following season he finished No. 3, and in 2007-08 he was No. 4.
Last season, he exploded on the World Cup hills, winning five golds and three silvers in nine starts en route to the overall championship. Coming into Sunday's freestyle competition, Bilodeau was ranked fourth.
Bilodeau's men's moguls gold is the first for a Canadian since Jean-Luc Brassard won at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994.
'The party's just getting started'
As expected, the first gold medal ignited the spirit of Canada's Olympians. Many showed their support through Twitter.
"I'm all about Bilodeau tonight. That guy is a CAT! It's the first of many for Canada!" wrote alpine skier Mike Janyk.
"1st gold medal on Canadian soil. Amazing!! Lets keep getting those medals!" wrote Jesse Lumsden, a Canadian bobsledder and CFL running back.
"It's an amazing feeling to watch a fellow Canadian win gold! Especially the first one, congrats Alex," wrote alpine skier Ryan Semple.
But Canada's newest hero said it best. Asked what his victory meant for the nation, he replied: "The party's just starting for Canada."
With files from The Canadian Press