At the end of the first week of the Winter Olympics, many Canadians might have been asking for a do-over. By the end of the second, they might be petitioning for an extension.
Remember when Canada’s Winter Olympians looked vaguely like moose in headlights? The moment finally upon them, the podium waiting to be owned, Canada flinched.
Sometimes Americans came bombing down the mogul run, snatching gold at the last possible instant. Sometimes Canadians saw the whites of destiny’s eyes and simply couldn’t stand the heat of the gaze, smacking into side walls on the skeleton track.
On what is now being called "Winning Wednesday," those days felt like another Olympics entirely. Canada won four medals and laid such a beating on archrival Russia in the men’s hockey quarterfinal that Russian ace Alexander Ovechkin was virtually handing over lunch money at the end of the game.
And more than that, Wednesday’s medal rush came after two nights that were not merely memorable for Canada, but transcendent. The ice-dancing pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won a stunning gold Monday, and figure-skater Joannie Rochette skated a program of such courage Tuesday – two days after her mother passed way unexpectedly – that it brought a nation to tears.
Own the Podium 2.0
It is too late for Canada to own the podium the way it intended. The race for the overall medal lead is down to the United States and Germany, who appear to be too far ahead to be caught by anyone else.
But as a consolation prize, Canada is now perhaps the front-runner to top the gold-medal table, its seven golds tied with the US and Germany. It could even say that, by doing this, it would win the medals race – China and the International Olympic Committee would agree, at least.
But Canada is past that "own the podium" stuff now, and thank goodness. It was only when Canada clearly fell out of the medals race that it began to show the world how good it actually is.
And that has been fun to watch. Unless you are Russian, perhaps.
The Canadians Strike Back
In the end, Wednesday’s showdown between earth’s two greatest men’s hockey teams was a “contest” only in the loosest sense of the term, as Canada won, 7-3 – a game that was not nearly as close as the score would suggest.
The bodies of the men known as the Russian hockey team were on the ice during the game. That was about as much as could be said for them.
Canada stopped scoring only when it decided it really didn’t need to anymore, and the Russians were obliging guests, giving a third-period effort more worthy of a “Did Not Finish” than Lindsey Vonn’s giant slalom run.
And that was the performance where Canada didn’t win a medal.
The man who turned the tide?
Speedskater Clara Hughes, who also has two Summer Olympic medals as a cyclist, took bronze in the 5000 meters – the fourth medal of these Games for the women of the Canadian long track speedskating team. Canada’s women speedskaters also won a medal on the short track, where a third-place performance was bumped up to silver when the winning Korean team was disqualified.
It was at the bobsled track, however, where Canada’s new mojo was most apparent – and that is only fitting, because it was there that Canada’s medal reversal began.
Last Friday, when a host of Canadian contenders had crashed out of the men’s super-G, and the nation’s top female skeleton slider had crumbled, falling from second to fifth on the final heat, Jon Montgomery stepped up.
Canada’s top man in skeleton had had enough of this wishy-washy, win-some, lose-some start to the Games, apparently. He sizzled down the track, overtaking his rival and moving up from second place to win Canada’s third gold.
For hours afterward, cameras followed him as he ambled around Whistler as though he was mayor for a day – a maple-leaf flag on his shoulders, a jaunty grin on his face, and a full pitcher of Whistler’s finest in his hand.
This gold-medal thing is no big deal, he seemed to be saying.
And Canadian Olympians have followed his lead.
On that same track Wednesday, Canada had gold locked up with its Canada 1 bobsled. The USA 2 sled seemed to have second in hand, and Canada 2 was fighting it out with two German sleds for bronze.
But by the end of the final heat, Canada 2 had done a Montgomery, and Canada was sitting in gold and silver medal position.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen [in the fourth heat], and I didn’t care,” said Helen Upperton, pilot of the Canada 2 sled, after the race. “We just wanted to have a blast.”
Jon Montgomery would be proud.