ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Try as he might, Alex Bilodeau could not sleep past nine o’clock on the morning of the biggest day of his sporting life.
Whether it was jet lag, nerves or just because he is an early riser, the Canadian freestyle skier was left with 13 hours to fill until the contest that would define his Olympics.
“It was a long day,” Bilodeau recalled in an interview with Reuters.
“We were trying to get up very late, but I‘m somebody who wakes up at 6am at home. I‘m not a big sleep-in guy, so I woke up at nine, trying to sleep as late as possible, and had a little nap from one to two.”
Plenty of time then to contemplate the task ahead - the mogul champion’s bid to become the first in his sport to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals.
Like all athletes, Bilodeau carries the scars of the many injuries he has suffered and the side-effects of anti-inflammatory medication he was taking for the most recent had a knock-on effect on his preparations.
“Because I was sick with a stomach problem that day, I took a lot of snacks,” he said, enjoying the bright spring sunshine on the bridge over the Mzytma river in Rosa Khutor. “I didn’t really eat meals, it was too hard on my stomach.”
Bilodeau spent much of the waiting time on the physio’s bench, getting treatment for back and shoulder problems that had been bothering him for the last few weeks.
There were psychological preparations too last Monday.
Bilodeau’s brother Frederic, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was to join the 26-year-old in an emotional embrace at the bottom of the moguls course but stayed at a distance before the competition.
“I didn’t speak to Frederic throughout the day,” he said. “I try to keep my family as far as possible from me as they’re pretty stressed and they can be stressful to me. I want to see them only after my result.”
Bilodeau was well acquainted with the man most likely to take away his title. Mikael Kingsbury, his 21-year-old compatriot, had dominated the sport recently, with two wins among four podium finishes in five races leading into the Games.
The rivalry with Kingsbury, who competes in a t-shirt bearing the legend “It’s Good To Be The King”, is friendly except when it’s competition time.
“I know that when we’re on the hill, the thing he wants the most is to finish in front of me, and I want to do the same,” said Bilodeau. “When we’re on the hill, it’s fight time. We respect that, and that’s rivalry.”
Finally it was time for Bilodeau to head to the Extreme Park. He boarded the TM17A shuttle bus from the Olympic Village, arriving with two hours to prepare for the heats.
Kingsbury was the first of the two to go in qualifying and immediately threw down a marker. With points given for time, jumps and turns, the 21-year-old posted a score of 23.81 to put himself in first place.
A few minutes later Bilodeau met the challenge, firing down the slope and beating Kingsbury in every category to top the standings. Both qualified directly for the final.
As those who had failed to progress battled it out in a second heat, Bilodeau watched an episode of American TV drama “Sons of Anarchy” on his computer.
Back on the hill, Bilodeau struggled in the first of the three runs in the final, slumping to eighth before improving to third as the finalists were whittled down from 18 to six.
He took the chair lift back to the top for the final run alone and knew what he had to do.
”Whatever the result would be, I just wanted to enjoy that moment,“ he said. ”It was my last Olympic ride, just enjoy it and show them what you can do.
“I crossed that finish line and I knew that was the best run I’d ever done, or could have ever done. I was really happy about everything falling into place at the right moment.”
He watched nervously at the foot of the hill as Kingsbury threw himself at the course, desperate to dislodge Bilodeau from the gold medal position. He failed.
The crowd erupted, Bilodeau embraced silver medalist Kingsbury and Frederic was allowed on to the landing area to share in the celebrations, as he had done in Vancouver.
There was not much time to celebrate wildly, although that did not mean Bilodeau was tucked up early.
”I didn’t go to bed, and then I slept one hour the following night,“ he said, smiling. ”That’s the most I slept in more than 48 hours.
“The first (drink) I tried was the night after the medal, but I think my stomach is still mad at me so we’ll have the big party a bit later.”
He received his gold medal the following evening down on the coast in Sochi but, for Bilodeau, it was always about the title.
“Before I won my first Olympic gold I was like ‘oh my God, it’s probably the best thing’,” he said.
“But after that I discovered the medal is only hardware. The title is what I’ve been working for all my life, and now I am a double Olympic champion.”
Editing by Robert Woodward