Skier Jennifer Heil to retire

The woman who kicked off Canada’s medal haul at the last two Winter Olympic Games is calling this her last season.

Vancouver 2010 Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Heil

Vancouver 2010 Olympic silver medalist Jennifer Heil

CALGARY — The woman who kicked off Canada’s medal haul at the last two Winter Olympic Games is calling this her last season.

Moguls skier Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., chose to announce her impending retirement Tuesday in her home province and at her last World Cup race in Canada.

The 27-year-old will compete at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary this weekend, followed by the world championships Feb. 2-5 in Deer Valley, Utah and in five more World Cups in Europe before she caps her career.

Heil is the defending champion in Calgary and expects to battle her emotions as much as the course at COP.

She’ll have a throng of friends and family there to cheer her on in her Canadian swan song.

“I can’t think of a better moment and a better place to celebrate the past and the future,” Heil said at a news conference. “It’s going to be great and I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more tears ahead.”

Heil’s gold medal on the first day of the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, inspired her fellow athletes to win 24 medals there, which was a record for Canada at the time.

Under incredible pressure to repeat, Heil made Canada’s first medal of the 2010 Games a silver. Teammate Alex Bilodeau won the country’s first Olympic gold on home soil the following day in men’s moguls.

Canada went on to top Turin’s totals with 26 medals, including 14 gold.

“She’s given me so much and I think a big portion of why I’m here today,” Bilodeau said. “Definitely she’s a legend in our sport.”

Heil is a five-time World Cup overall champion and twice won the world championship in women’s moguls. She says her career highlight will be standing at the top of Cypress Mountain in Vancouver waiting to barrel down the Olympic course.

“It’s just knowing I did everything I could to be prepared,” she said. “To hear all of Canada cheer, it was like the mountain vibrated.”

“I have absolutely no regrets in this sport.”

Heil has stood on the World Cup podium four times, including three second-place results, already this season. She’s currently second in the World Cup moguls standings to American Hannah Kearney, who beat her for Olympic gold. She’s won 54 World Cup medals during her career and 25 of them were gold. Heil admits it’s difficult for an athlete to utter the word “retirement” and she didn’t during interviews Tuesday.

“I’ve only said it out loud this morning for the first time and I’ve been in tears most of the morning,” she said.

“I’m definitely in good shape. I could go for one more Olympic Games. I’m still at the top of my game, but for me I feel it’s an important time to build on my future. I want to be as successful off the slopes as I have been on the slopes and I feel that time is now. I feel that in my heart.”

Heil makes her home in Montreal and intends to complete her undergraduate degree in management and political science at McGill. She’s planning a $1-million fundraiser for Plan Canada’s Because I Am a Girl campaign, which invests in girls’ health and education globally.

She’s also going to stay involved in an organization she helped found, B2ten, which connects Canadian businesses with Olympic-level athletes.

Her coach and boyfriend Dominick Gauthier is retiring along with Heil.

“For me, it was the clear the day Jenn retires, I’ll be done,” he said. “I didn’t want to be on the road seven to eight months a year and Jenn at home. We’re looking forward to other things in life.

“We’ll cherish these next few weeks even more now that it’s official we are done.”

Heil has approached her sport with a single-mindedness that’s unparalleled, Gauthier said. That’s been the secret to her success.

“Attention to detail, I have never seen that in any other athlete,” he explained. “I would be bored often doing what she’s doing in the gym because everything is meticulous.

“She pushes the coaches and trainers working with her to be better every day. We can’t just sit and ride the wave. Every day has to have a purpose and every day there is an objective to accomplish.”

Heil chose to announce her retirement where her skiing career began. Heil was five years old when the 1988 Winter Olympics were in Calgary and learned her sport because of the legacy of those Games.

“My family started driving me down to COP every weekend so my sister and I could ski on the Alberta team,” Heil said. “I have so many amazing memories of COP. I really grew up on the slopes. I became a dreamer at that time, dreaming of the Olympic Games.”

The World Cup in Calgary opens Thursday with qualification rounds in men’s and women’s moguls. Aerials qualification follows Friday. The men’s and women’s finals in both disciplines is Saturday and will be carried by Rogers Sportsnet (check local listings).