VANCOUVER, B.C. – A gold medal, a men’s hockey win and snow at Cypress Mountain: if Tuesday in Vancouver was a Johnny Carson routine, the question in the envelope would read, “Name three things Canada expected to see more of by now.”
Still, better late than never. Extreme skier Ashleigh McIvor, of Whistler, B.C., embraced woolly, white-out conditions at Cypress, soaring into Olympic lore as the world’s first gold medallist in the high-drama thrill ride that is women’s ski cross.
Races transpire on a course that’s like a motocross track on the side of a mountain. Four skiers bash elbows and catch massive air as they rip down a lane littered with huge jumps and turns. First over the line – McIvor, in this case – is the winner.
“I just felt really comfortable, and at home, obviously, and it’s a good atmosphere for me,” said the telegenic 26-year-old, who wore a dazzling smile during the medals ceremony before doffing her Canada toque for the national anthem.
“I was pretty calm the whole way through, and just looking forward to each run. I was like, ‘Let me go, let me go.”‘
Team Canada borrowed some of McIvor’s momentum and dispatched middling Germany by a convincing 8-2 margin, a palate cleanser of a game that allowed a hockey-mad country to brace for Wednesday’s impact with Alex Ovechkin and the Russians.
“It’s going to be intense,” Canadian star Sidney Crosby said of the faceoff against Russia, which eliminated Canada from the 2006 Games in Turin with a 2-0 victory in the quarter-finals.
“We’ve got a tough game (Wednesday). That’s a big rivalry, we all know it.”
By nightfall, however, all eyes were on Joannie Rochette.
Just days after the sudden death of her 55-year-old mother Therese, the diminutive 24-year-old skater from Ile-Dupas, Que., was the picture of focus as she took to the ice to a thunderous ovation, then skated her heart out.
When it was over, grief and fatigue twisted her figure-skater smile into a tremulous effort to hold back the tears. Rochette hugged coach Manon Perron, then blew tearful kisses to the crowd. She ended the night in third place, well within striking distance of the podium when she returns to the ice Thursday.
Rochette’s reaction came in fragments from her coaches and handlers. Asked how she was feeling, she said, simply, “Words cannot describe.”
She has received a huge outpouring of support in the wake of the tragedy.
“There have been a lot of well-wishes and cards and articles sent to her and, at her pace, she goes through some of them, and has been reading some of the cards,” said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s high performance director.
“Pretty much everyone is sending their thoughts and prayers to her during this. People have just been so great.”
Canada ended the day with six gold medals to go along with four silver and one bronze – and more than a few reasons to look forward to Wednesday.
Kaillie Humphries, from Calgary, broke the track record at the Whistler Sliding Centre to take the lead after the first two runs in women’s bobsled.
Humphries, 24, and brakeman Heather Moyse of Summerside, P.E.I., led both heats at a top speed of 146.9 kilometres an hour. Calgary’s Helen Upperton, with Shelley-Ann Brown on the brakes, was fourth, just 42 one-hundredths of a second back in the 21-sled field.
“My pilot says I should try and drive the sled more like a Ferrari and less like a John Deere tractor,” said Humphries, driving in her first Olympics.
“The race isn’t over yet. I can’t be all excited. There were some mistakes made. I’ll try not to make them tomorrow.”
On the mountains of Whistler, Canada’s alpine woes continued. Carlo Janka of Switzerland won the Olympic gold medal in giant slalom, followed by Norway’s Kjetil Jansrud and countryman Aksel Lund Svindal.
The top Canadian in the race was Erik Guay, 28, of Montreal, who finished 16th, followed by Whistler’s Robbie Dixon in 24th.
After the race, a frustrated Guay spoke out about the $117-million Own The Podium program, which he said needs to pay more attention to the input of Canada’s athletes if it expects better success at the next Olympics.
The five-year program pumped badly needed money into Canadian sport, Guay acknowledged. But OTP could have had an even better payoff if officials had listened more to what athletes wanted, he said.
“If at least they listened to what we have to say, and they listen to how we think, we can get improvement, at least they would have that.”
The super-G result was a disappointing showing, but nowhere near on the scale of the crushing blow delivered Tuesday to Dutch world champion speedskater Sven Kramer, whose bid to claim his second gold medal of the Games was derailed by an embarrassing coaching blunder.
Kramer, the world-record holder, finished four seconds ahead of South Korea’s Lee Seung-hoon in the 10,000 metres, but was disqualified for failing to switch lanes properly on the 17th of 25 laps, when his coach gave him the wrong instructions.
Kramer threw his glasses away in disgust when he learned the news.
“With two or three laps to go, I was looking at my girlfriend in the stands and she had her face in her hands,” he said later. “I thought, ‘This is not good.”‘