Gold pressure still on

The monkey is finally gone. But as Canada basks in the glow of the country’s first gold medal won on home soil, one might ask on whose back the monkey was poised.

Alexandre Bilodeau celebrates Canada’s first gold medal as a host during the medal ceremony in Vancouver on Monday.

Alexandre Bilodeau celebrates Canada’s first gold medal as a host during the medal ceremony in Vancouver on Monday.

VANCOUVER — The monkey is finally gone. But as Canada basks in the glow of the country’s first gold medal won on home soil, one might ask on whose back the monkey was poised.

Thirty-four years after first hosting an Olympic Games, a Canadian athlete has finally won a gold medal in Canada. In doing so during the country’s third hosting gig, Alexandre Bilodeau put an end to a drought that was unique among Olympic host countries.

The moguls gold — following closely on the heels of Jenn Heil’s moguls silver and Kristina Groves’ speedskating bronze — is a cause for celebration for Canadians and an indisputable source of relief for sports administrators in this country.

But will it be an inspiration for Canadian athletes, spurring them to heights they might not otherwise achieve?

It will be a boost, the moguls teams’ sports psychologist says. But it may not be as big a boost as non-athletes might think.

“Athletes are excited that someone got a gold medal but they come back to what they need to do,” Penny Werthner, a sports psychologist who works with the freestyle skiing teams and the women’s hockey team, said following Bilodeau’s victory. “They still need to come back to sort of their centre and be focused on what they’re doing.”

Werthner, a former Olympic track athlete, said the pressure to finally win a made-in-Canada gold is a narrative that obsesses the media, but it’s not the story that preoccupies athletes themselves.

They are individuals, focused on winning. Here. On the World Cup circuit. Always.

To illustrate her point, Werthner noted she talked to a member of the aerials team after Heil was beaten to the top point on the podium by American Hannah Kearney on Saturday night. They talked briefly about Heil, but then quickly turned to the task before the unnamed skier.

“It sounds very selfish, but it is what is required in this environment at this point in time,” said Werthner, who competed at the Montreal Games in 1976, the first time this country hosted the Olympics.

“They don’t get too hung up in this,” she said of the country’s previous lack of home-earned gold, or the fact the task has finally been completed.

In the lead-up to these Games, as part of the unprecedented Own the Podium program, Werthner, a University of Ottawa professor, worked with Heil and Bilodeau and others, helping them learn to manage their stress.

She used techniques like biofeedback and neurofeedback to help the athletes recognize when they were anxious, how their bodies responded to the emotion and how to get past it.

The goal was to help them tune out things that don’t matter and focus on things that did.

Take for instance the letters and emails of encouragement athletes have been getting as they prepare for these Games. Heil referred to them after winning her silver medal, saying how moved she was by things like a drawing a child sent her depicting Heil on the gold medal podium.

Werthner said letters of encouragement can help athletes, but they can also get in the way of a competitor’s focus.

“I do encourage athletes at some point not to read too much of that and sort of shut that down. Not that they don’t appreciate it because they absolutely do and I think Jenn absolutely does. But it’s shutting that down so it doesn’t add to that sense of urgency.”

After Heil’s silver — a major accomplishment, but not the medal colour the driven mogul’s skier was looking for — Werthner dismissed concerns that athletes’ spirits might be depleted.

Hours before Bilodeau and the other men on the mogul’s team took to the hill, she predicted their focus would be on the task before them, not what happened to their female teammate the previous evening.

Apparently she was right. Canada finished first, fourth, fifth and 11th in a field of 30 skiers.

“Those mogul guys that are going up there today, our Canadian guys, they’re focused on what their job is,” she said.

“You know … almost everyone one of these athletes on the Canadian team has worked long and hard and their goal is to perform very well here and win a medal. And for lots of these athletes, it’s absolutely realistic.”

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