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With her ever-present smile and affable personality, Jennifer Heil doesn't seem like a candidate to lead a revolution. Yet that is exactly what she did on the first day of competition at the Turin Olympics when her gold medal run in the women's freestyle moguls event set the tone for the rest of the Canadian contingent. Once the laughingstock of international athletics (in 1976 we suffered the ignominy of being the first host nation of the Summer Olympics to go without winning a single gold medal), Canadian Olympians took their cue from Heil, finishing third in the overall medal count after storming the podium a record 24 times.
Coming into the Games, Heil was the front-runner for the gold medal, having dominated the World Cup circuit for the past two seasons. But, as was witnessed by the epic collapse of our own heavily favoured men's hockey team, rankings mean very little on game day.
As the last skier in the competition, the management student watched as defending Olympic champion and mogul legend Kari Traa of Norway laid down a scintillating run to take the lead. Traa, who had already announced that Turin would be her last Games, had set the stage for a Hollywood ending to her storybook career.
Poised at the top of the hill for her descent, it would have been easy for Heil to succumb to the pressure, play it safe and ski for the silver.
But, just seconds before her run, Heil felt no pressure at all. "I remember thinking 'Wow, I'm way too calm,'" she laughs during one of her many interviews while on a recent two-day sojourn in Montreal.
Her incredible poise was the result of a great many factors, beginning when she shocked the ski world by taking a full year off following her fourth place finish at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. Just 18 at the time, Heil's slight frame had already absorbed a terrific pounding on the unforgiving mogul circuit. "The problem was I was progressing faster than my body," she says. It had gotten so bad that on practice runs, she would ski between the moguls instead of over them, trying to memorize the run without putting more mileage on her over-taxed joints.
The year away from the sport proved to be an elixir for Heil's body and mind. Skiing "no more than five times" all year, she enrolled at McGill - a move she credits with helping save her skiing career. "The year at McGill was great," she says. "Living in one place, studying full time, meeting new people outside the sport - it brought balance back into my life. I wouldn't have had any success without that new perspective on things."
While she wasn't skiing, Heil was revamping her training methods. Under the guidance of a team of fitness consultants, she eschewed a skier's typical dry land training staple of squats and leg presses to concentrate on her body as a whole. She spent two years establishing a solid physical foundation before beginning serious strength training. Today, Heil is considered one of the fittest skiers on the circuit.
On that fateful day in Turin, there was no room for doubt in Heil's mind, no chance of being overwhelmed by the moment. "I saw it for what it was," she says matter-of-factly of the Olympic experience. "It was a sporting event and I had worked hard for it. I just wanted to show the world what I could do." Tipping herself over the edge on her way to glory, Heil's next stop would be atop the podium.