VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Four years ago, Jennifer Heil was the best. Now she has a chance to be the first.
If you were blissfully unaware that Canada, host of two previous Games, has never won an Olympic gold medal on home soil, well, now you know. This bit of Canadian Olympic trivia should be resolved sometime after 8 p.m. PT on Saturday, barring an upset win in the men's downhill at Whistler in the morning (weather permitting) or a shocker in the women's moguls on Cypress Mountain on Vancouver's North Shore.
Heil finished first in the last four World Cup moguls events she entered. Her recent training has been exceptional. As her coach, Dominick Gauthier, told SI.com last week, "Without over-focusing, the machine is ready. She's been pushing the speed limit a little bit. She's at the next level of speed and has gotten into a more comfortable zone. From a training standpoint the job is done."
Heil should be pushed by a group of Americans, notably Heather McPhie, who finished tied for first with the Canadian in one of the two moguls competitions at Deer Valley, Utah, last month. In one of the Lake Placid that races Heil skipped the following week, Hannah Kearney led a one-through-four sweep by U.S. freestylers. Aiko Uemura of Japan is another contender, although the judges' seeming emphasis in 2009-10 on speed, form and precision rather than big tricks might work against her as she bumps and soars down the 250-meter course. Uemura is a genius in training but rarely puts a run together on race day.
Heil has rebuilt her body since winning the gold in Turin, fine-tuning her biomechanics and, as her athletic therapist Dave Campbell describes it, "essentially relearning how to walk. We also had to tell her to stop doing intramural sports [at McGill University, where the 26-year-old has been studying commerce and marketing]. If it were up to her, she would be in the pool playing water polo." Heil competed in the '07-08 World Cup season -- there were those post-Olympic appearance fees for a gold medalist, after all -- but sat out the following year to calm her chronically irritated knees.
Mercifully, Heil's knees have been the only things that seem to get irritated. She has handled the inevitable question about becoming the first home Canadian gold medalist with extraordinary grace. She was raised in Alberta, moved to Montreal to attend McGill and disarms in English and French. She has a six-time zone smile that might be the most recognizable in the country, which means either it truly is exceptional or that hockey players simply don't smile enough.
"Jenn's feeling the energy with the Olympics in Canada," says Gauthier, who also is her boyfriend. "She wants to win a medal and share it with the whole country."