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Heil could put Canada on the board in moguls

EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writer
Jennifer Heil of Canada during a mogul practice session at the Cypress Mountain snowboard and freestyle ski venue during a training session at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Odd Andersen)
ASSOCIATED PRESS | AP

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The Canadian Olympic team wants to own the podium. Freestyle skier Jenn Heil’s job is to make the down payment.

All of Canada will be watching Heil, the world’s top-ranked moguls skier, who is considered a strong bet to go down as the first Canadian to win Olympic gold in her home country Saturday in one of the traditional opening-day events.

Pressure? If she feels it, she’s not telling.

“I’ve only ever competed on Day 1, so it’s all I know,” Heil said. “I know how much hard work goes into winning an Olympic medal. I don’t put more value on winning on Day 1 instead of Day 10.”

A nice thought. But Canada did pour $110 million into its “Own the Podium” program, the goal being to win the medal count over these 17 days in Vancouver. Asked recently about the brash goals being set by a country known for being laid back, Own the Podium CEO Roger Jackson responded: “What were we supposed to do, shoot to finish second or third?”

It probably will take between 25 and 30 medals to win the overall count, and if Canada is to achieve that goal, many will have to come at Cypress Mountain, where the Canadians will field strong teams almost every day, in freestyle and snowboarding.

Heil might be the most successful athlete in the bunch.

The defending Olympic gold medalist, she has won four straight World Cup events coming into these games – an amazing string of success in a sport where bumps, jumps and snow make that kind of consistency uncommon.

One of Heil’s main challengers knows all about the vagaries of the sport.

American Hannah Kearney came into the 2006 Olympics as the defending world champion and a favorite. She bobbled at the beginning of her first qualifying run, never fully gathered herself and finished 22nd – forced to watch finals from the bottom of the hill.

“My biggest competition after the last Olympics is probably myself,” said Kearney, ranked third in the world behind Heil and American Heather McPhie. “I just can’t get in my own head. I just have to ski. The World Cup podium can change every week. We all have to ski well.”

After a second straight day of rain-drenched training Friday, skiers were mostly upbeat about the conditions – a top layer of soft, eminently carvable frozen slush between the moguls that lead into frozen-solid jumps thanks to tubes of dry ice that have been installed beneath the ramps.

“I’m a California girl. I’m used to this,” said Shannon Bahrke, the 2002 silver medalist, as she walked to the wax tent in a driving rain. “I wish I could go to 79 Olympics. I’m sad this will be my last one. Think I’ve already cried about 20 times today.”

The men will take over Sunday, with Dale Begg-Smith looking for a repeat. His win would go in the medals column for Australia, though he was is a native Canadian who changed his citizenship – a fact that riled people in Canada when he left for a better training situation Down Under.

A Canadian competing for Canada, Alexandre Bilodeau, is ranked fourth in the world and could help his country augment the medal count.

“Canada, with the programs, they’ve given me everything they could to perform here on Sunday,” Bilodeau said. “I’m going to do my best. I’m ready. I’ve got no regrets about how I’ve prepared. What happens will happen. I’ve done my job already.”

Heil feels the same way.

And though she won the gold medal in 2006, she’s hoping for a little bit different finish this time. When she stepped to the podium for the flower ceremony in Italy, the public-address announcer said, “Jennifer Heil, United States of America.”

Oops. Same mistake probably won’t happen this time.

“I might be the answer to a trivia question someday,” she said. “Who knows?”


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