KRASNAYA, POLYANA RUSSIA – Alex Bilodeau carried the Canadian flag along with the prodigy who pushed him to history. Moments later, the greatest moguls skier of his time bearhugged his inspiration, pulling him over the fence in the process.
The first two-time Olympic gold medalist in freestyle skiing will take the hardware, just not the credit.
Slashing through the slush in snow better suited for a Slurpee, Bilodeau fended off teammate Mikael Kingsbury to capture his second straight Olympic title Monday night, then celebrated with older brother Frederic, whose life with cerebral palsy provides a daily reality check on the considerable gifts Bilodeau has been granted.
“He has dreams like you and I but he can’t go after most of those dreams,” Bilodeau said. “I have the ability that I can go after those dreams. And out of respect for him, I go after them.”
Kingsbury claimed silver to give Canada its second one-two moguls finish in three days, while Russia’s Alexandr Smyshlyaev won bronze in front of a frenzied crowd waving the home country’s red-white-and-blue flags.
“It’s victory,” Smyshlyaev said. “It’s one big victory for Russian moguls.”
Considering the stranglehold Canada has on the sport at the moment, bronze is as good as gold for everybody else.
In one final stand on the world stage, Bilodeau put together what he called the finest run in a career that includes being the first Canadian to win Olympic gold on home soil four years ago in Vancouver.
Racing fourth in the six-man final, his blazing yet graceful sprint down Rosa Khutor Extreme Park resulted in an eye-popping score of 26.31.
“I know that guy can put down a better run than me, he’s got more talent than I do,” Bilodeau said of Kingsbury. “I just wanted to go out and do the best I could and see if I could put some pressure on.”
Standing atop the hill, Kingsbury watched the familiar scene unfold. The world’s two best moguls skiers have been playing tug-of-war for No. 1 in the world for the better part of three years. Yet Kingsbury’s attempt to yank gold out of Bilodeau’s hands ended halfway down the mountain, where a small spreading of the knees in a discipline that requires them to be attached like magnets ended any hopes of reaching the top of the podium.
“I felt pretty good at the top of the gate,” Kingsbury said. “I wasn’t going for silver or bronze. I was going for gold and I made a small mistake.”
Not Bilodeau, who figured only perfection would do while facing “that guy,” as he calls him — the man who has pushed him in ways he never imagined.
“I really wanted to defend my medal,” Bilodeau said. “But there was no way I was expecting to ski that way. And that’s because of that kid. If he wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have pushed that hard.”
At times, it appeared both were intimidated by the stage. While they dominated qualifying, they were hardly sharp in the first knockout round.
Kingsbury slogged to one of the slowest times of the competition while Bilodeau nearly fell on his backside after landing his first jump and finished eighth, uncomfortably close to the 12-man cutoff.
Still, it ultimately came down to what is has repeatedly come down to in most of the past four years, the 26-year-old Bilodeau against the 21-year-old Kingsbury in a fight for supremacy.
In the end, it wasn’t close. The final margin was the moguls equivalent of a three-touchdown blowout in football. Kingsbury flashed a wry smile after crossing the finish line, knowing he’d been beaten. The two friendly rivals embraced, though it was Bilodeau who flashed the “No. 1” sign during the flower ceremony.
It’s a title Bilodeau — who is retiring at the end of the season — figures he won’t hold for long.
“That kid next to me is going to win two in a row also,” he said while pointing to Kingsbury.
The experience of surviving in less than perfect conditions will only help.
Instead of powdery snow that allows racers to carve graceful turns at near breakneck speeds, nearly half of the field either veered off course or tumbled head over skis during qualifying.
And the mistakes weren’t limited to the also-rans. Pat Deneen of the U.S. was hung up midway down the mountain in his first qualifying run and he angrily bulled through one of the gates marking the end of the slope before making his way to the bottom. While he recovered to top the second qualifying run and make it to the finals, defending Olympic silver medalist Dale Begg-Smith of Australia did not.
The gold medalist at Turin in 2006 was attempting to make a comeback after taking three years off to deal with a rash of injuries. He was sloppy during the first run before disaster struck in the second. Less than 15 meters from getting through a run clean enough to advance to the medal round, Begg-Smith couldn’t get his skis over in time while completing his second jump. He smashed into the muck, his face a mixture of stunned disbelief and disgust. It marked the first time Begg-Smith missed out on the finals since 2005.
But claiming one last medal, however, would have been a long shot at best for Begg-Smith following his sabbatical.
The sport he once dominated has moved on without him, as the Canadians have separated themselves from the rest of the world — a gap that shows no signs of closing.