Silver for Heil

Freestyle skier Jennifer Heil won Canada’s first medal of the Vancouver Olympics on Saturday night but she had to settle for silver.

Jennifer Heil

Jennifer Heil

WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. — Freestyle skier Jennifer Heil won Canada’s first medal of the Vancouver Olympics on Saturday night but she had to settle for silver.

The 26-year-old native of Spruce Grove, Alta., went into the Games as the defending moguls champion and had been touted as Canada’s best hope to win its first Olympic gold on home soil.

“I definitely felt like I could have done better. There’s no doubt about it,” said an emotional Heil. “I was shooting for a gold tonight. But I really do feel like I won silver.”

The gold ended up going to American Hannah Kearney, who was on top of her game in the final. She collected 26.63 points while Heil was second with 25.69 and American Shannon Bahrke was third with 25.43.

Chloe Dufour-Lapointe of Montreal was fifth while Kristi Richards of Summerside, B.C., finished last in 17th after falling in the final. But the Canadian did get up and finish her run as the crowd cheered her on.

The win was sweet redemption for Kearney, who went into the 2006 Turin Games as one of the favourites but finished 22nd. It was also the first U.S. gold of the Vancouver Games.

Bahrke won a silver at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

Heil waved to the crowd and mouthed ”Thank you” as she stood on the podium at the bottom of the course to accept her medal.

Saturday’s final took place in wet and windy conditions at Cypress Mountain with several of the finalists falling during their runs. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in the crowd.

Weather has been playing havoc with the Olympic competition schedule just two days into the Games. The men’s downhill in Whistler, B.C., was postponed earlier Saturday and Sunday’s women’s super-combined has also been pushed back.

Canada failed to make the top of the podium when it hosted Olympics in Montreal and Calgary.

Entering the first full day of competition, Canada had a legitimate chance to come away with at least three medals. But downhiller Manuel Osborne-Paradis of Invermere, B.C., never even made it to the starting gate while short-track speedskater Charles Hamelin of Ste-Julie, Que., failed to make the final in the men’s 1,500.

But there was extra pressure on Heil, whose gold was Canada’s first medal of the 2006 Turin Games.

Having won back-to-back championships in 2004 and ’05, she remained a model of consistency, winning two more moguls titles before sitting out the entire 2008 season to recover from injury and revamp her technique to ease the wear on her knees.

The results were immediate — and impressive. She won two races in 2009, finished second in the overall standings and pre-qualified for the Games thanks to a second-place finish at the world championships in Japan.

Completely healed and equipped with a gruelling new training regimen, the five-foot-three dynamo was once again considered the one to beat heading into Vancouver.

A noted perfectionist, Heil entered the 2010 season intending to treat each race as if it were the Olympic final — every performance was deconstructed on video, with even the slightest hitch serving as motivation to improve.

That approach paid dividends, with Heil entering the Games having won her last four World Cup races — including a pair at her home course in Calgary, where she was mobbed by childhood friends and family members after both victories.

This time, she shared her medal with the country — thousands of red- and white-clad fans who braved the elements, swaying in the bleachers as tunes by artists from Guns N’ Roses to Michael Jackson blasted onto the mountain each time an athlete hit the run.

Many of Heil’s teammates had considered the personable skier the perfect candidate for Canada’s first gold medal. Those who know her well say that behind the camera-friendly smile lies an intense competitor who takes pride in everything she does.

“I think more than anything, Jenn has steely-eyed competitive gene in her that makes her a phenomenally tenacious competitor,” said Canadian Freestyle Ski Association CEO Peter Judge. “She’s very hungry and won’t let anything lie.”

One of the strongest challenges to Heil’s quest for gold came from the weather, which further decimated Cypress Mountain on Saturday. Wind, rain and hail pelted the course before the afternoon qualifying session, leaving doubt as to whether the event would take place.

Fans huddled in a tent a few hours before the qualifications, seeking refuge from the rain. Many who stayed outdoors battled gusts of wind that turned their umbrellas inside-out.

A constant drizzle pelted fans at the base of the hill, but the rain couldn’t quiet the crowd, which erupted each time a Canadian skier ripped down the course. The rain picked up significantly just before Heil opened her qualifying run, but she didn’t waver, navigating the course with the same steadiness that landed her on the podium in Turin.

She qualified second behind Kearney, who edged Heil out for top spot on the strength of the fastest time of the session.

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