Alexandre Bilodeau halts Canada's gold-medal drought
Monday, February 15, 2010
WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The Frenchman with a chance to ruin the hopes of so many at the bottom of the mountain grinned villainously. As Guilbaut Colas prepared for the final run of the Olympic men's freestyle moguls final, he smiled down at the thousands of flag-waving, cowbell-rattling, red-faced Canadians and the man on which their hopes rested: Alexandre Bilodeau, who was, for the moment, in first place with only Colas remaining to ski.
But there was someone else down there, too. Little-known American Bryon Wilson, who before December was fully expecting to be watching this event on television at home in Butte, Mont., found himself in the strangest place: clinging to third place. If Colas topped Bilodeau, Wilson would be pushed off the medal stand.
But the Frenchman flopped, and a wild celebration unfolded as the results became clear. Bilodeau claimed Canada's first gold medal in a home Olympic Games, ending what had been an ignominious drought.
And Wilson, 21, earned a stunning bronze medal for Team USA and the biggest prize of his career by a long shot. He finished behind Bilodeau and Australian Dale Begg-Smith, the 2006 Olympic champion. It was quite a dramatic step for a U.S. freestyle B-teamer at the start of the year, a kid who got his first World Cup start ever in December -- and then only because of an injury to a U.S. teammate.
"It was a long shot, but I'm glad," Wilson said. "A year ago, I was just hoping to make the Olympic team."
Bilodeau won the gold that Canada had been closing on but failing to grab over the past couple of days. Here on Saturday, Canadian teammate Jenn Heil finished second in the women's moguls competition, pushed out of first place on the final run by American Hannah Kearney.
"It was just the best feeling ever," Bilodeau said. "There's more to come. The party's just starting for Canada. I'll be in the stands cheering for all of the Canadians in the next couple of days.
Bilodeau won with a score of 26.75, edging Begg-Smith, who tallied 26.58 and Wilson's 26.08. Canadians Vincent Marquis (25.88) and Pierre-Alexandre Rousseau (25.82) got fifth and sixth. Americans Patrick Deneen and Nathan Roberts fell on the course and did not place, and Michael Morse got 15th.
Marquis and Rousseau had gotten the crowd riled up by taking the lead early in the evening's final, and pandemonium was unleashed after Bilodeau passed Begg-Smith, something of a controversial figure in these parts. Born in Vancouver, he and his brother quit the Canadian ski team as teenagers because they claimed that they weren't given time to pursue their burgeoning computer business. After getting his Australian citizenship, he won the Olympic gold medal in 2006.
"There are probably 10 guys that could have been on top of the podium today," Bilodeau said, "and I'm glad it was me. I was nervous but I was comfortable. Probably the most comfortable I've ever been . . . I went for it."
So did Wilson, who matched Bilodeau with the hardest trick of the competition on his first jump. Virtually no one in the world of freestyle skiing knew a thing about Wilson before this past December. He began the 2009-10 season on the U.S. freestyle team's B squad, but got a chance for a World Cup start, the first of his career, in December when teammate Landon Gardner pulled out because of an injury.
Wilson finished second at that event in Suomi, Finland. At another World Cup race a day later, he finished second again, securing his Olympic team slot.
"It's been my goal to really get here and perform my best," Wilson said.
Wilson grew up in a family of outdoorsman in Butte, where he and his younger brother Brad would carry their skis 3 1/2 miles through the woods, so they could practice their freestyle tricks. A U.S. ski team development coach spotted the boys from the side of the road and invited them to take up the sport seriously. (Brad, 17, finished ninth at the 2009 U.S. championships.)
Besides skiing, Wilson also found time for a hobby that has turned into a profitable little business. He sells the life-size wood carvings of fish that he makes, and which have earned him blue medals in many competitions.
"I'm on back-order right now," Wilson said. "I have a ton of fish to carve when I'm done [competing] this summer."
Wilson, who skied third from the last, did not have his medal clinched until the final run.
"I knew I had laid down a good run when I saw the score," he said. "I sat down there on the bench and just waited and hoped it held up, and it did. It was pretty amazing."