Canadian Takes Winding Course
Several Sports Later, 39-Year-Old Firefighter Rides Skeleton to Gold

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

CESANA, Italy, Feb. 17 -- The inspiration can come from anywhere. For a 10-year-old boy in Toronto, it was the 1976 Summer Olympics in his homeland. He watched an unknown Canadian high jumper named Greg Joy win a silver medal on a rainy Saturday afternoon, became enthralled with volleyball and by the time the flame was doused in Montreal he already knew his life's ambition.

Duff Gibson was going to win an Olympic medal.

Then he spent the next three decades trying to make it happen.

There were failures. Plenty of failures. He was a high school wrestler until he realized he wasn't good enough to be elite, then went through college at the University of Western Ontario as a rower until it became clear he wouldn't make the Olympics in the water, so he took on judo and after that speedskating and later the bobsled.

Meanwhile, the years piled up. And when the bobsled people told him he would never be good enough to earn an Olympic berth, he quit and threw his hopes into a sport he used to mock. This is how he came to ride the skeleton.

Then Friday, on a snowy night in the Alps, with cowbells ringing in the stands, his dream came true as he plunged through the icy course here at speeds of more than 77 mph, sliding across the finish to look up and see he had won a gold medal.

"Winning was exactly how I dreamt it would have felt," Gibson said.

How he had waited to know. Duff Gibson is 39 years old and for the last six years he has worked as a firefighter in Calgary. He is based at the station next to the Calgary airport where he drives the truck that puts out airplane fires. The truck has a nozzle that can poke holes in the sides of airplanes and instantly fill the fuselage with foam.

He loves this job. But over the last several years he has been forced to miss as much as four months a year of work so he can chase the dream that first flickered in his 10-year-old eyes. There have been training camps and skeleton competitions. His winters have taken him all over the world. This has not been easy. Not for the other firefighters. Not for his wife.

"There have been a lot of sacrifices for sure," Jen Gibson said with both a smile and a sigh as she stood in the stands, the snow fluttering down around her.

But all that was forgotten Friday as Duff Gibson sat in a news conference, looked past the reporters and straight at his wife. Then he said: "My dream was to go out on top, this is it. These were the last two runs."

So many times it must have seemed like this wasn't worth it. They have been married for three years, been together for five and friends for long before that. Jen Gibson, who works at a community center in Calgary, has had to endure her husband's whims as he kept running after the elusive medal. There were plenty of talks, she said. Decisions were made and priorities established.

Jen Gibson has a dream, too. She wants a family. But it's hard to have children when your husband is lying flat on a sled and hurtling down ice-filled troughs in places like Oberhof, Winterberg and St. Moritz.

"I miss him like crazy when he's gone," she said.

When he leaves he has to trade his shifts at the firehouse. The Calgary Fire Department has been understanding, allowing him to swap hours with other firefighters, but this can be difficult to do. There are only so many shifts to trade. After that, Duff Gibson has to sell them. Each shift costs $150 a day and they have to be sold in groups of four days. Jen Gibson figures her husband has to sell 20 groups a year, which comes out to about $12,000. It is not a small amount of money for a couple hoping to have children.

"I'm the breadwinner," Jen said with a laugh.

But it was all for the dream.

In many ways, Duff Gibson is probably not very different from many of the elite skeleton riders at the Olympics. It has been the sport of last resort for a whole host of men consumed with owning something from the Olympics to hang around their necks. American Eric Bernotas, who came in sixth on Friday, found the sport on a chance visit to Lake Placid, N.Y. Kevin Ellis, an accountant from Dallas, who came in 17th, was a track star at Stephen F. Austin who almost qualified for the 1996 Olympics as a hurdler.

"There are very competitive athletes in this sport," Bernotas said.

Ellis agreed, saying that it used to be easy to get into the skeleton, but added that lately there has been a flood of newcomers from other pursuits who have raised the talent level significantly.

Like Duff Gibson. He switched to the skeleton in 1999. Four years ago, he reached part of his goal by earning his way into the Olympics, finishing 10th. Still he would not be deterred. He was sure he had found his way to an Olympic medal. He just had to work harder.

The last year has not been good for him. He broke his ribs in a skeleton accident and then his father died of cancer. The death did not come as a surprise, but it was still a shock. Friday night someone asked Duff Gibson if he had thought about his father during the race.

And the man who had finally made his dream come true began to weep. His words broke.

"What I would dedicate to him was that I told myself if I won I would be the most gracious winner I could be and if I lost I would be the most gracious loser I could be," he finally said.

With that Duff Gibson dropped his head to the table and sobbed, his huge shoulders heaving, crying for a little boy's reverie and the man who would not live to see it come true. Sitting beside him, the silver medalist, his Canadian teammate, Jeff Pain, dabbed his own tears.

And several rows of Olympic volunteers who had packed into the back of the room did something they almost never do. They stood and clapped for Duff Gibson.

Skeleton Men G: Duff Gibson, Canada S: Jeff Pain, Canada B: Gregor Staehli, Switzerland U.S. Team 6. Eric Bernotas 17. Kevin Ellis 25. Chris Soule

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