VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Alexandre Bilodeau, skiing under huge pressure, finally won Canada’s first Olympic gold at a home Games when he snatched victory in a thrilling finale to the men’s freestyle moguls on Sunday.
A day after his moguls team mate Jennifer Heil failed to live up to expectations and win Canada’s first gold medal, Bilodeau stepped up and flew down the course at Cypress Mountain in a speedy, near flawless run.
After qualifying with the second best time, Bilodeau was the second to last to race. Coming into the race he was not the gold medal favorite but he showed he had the goods as he performed the toughest trick of the night.
His two jumps -- a double twisting back flip and a back flip with an iron cross -- were clean and his knees close together as he wove a tight path down the bump-filled course.
“I don’t think I realize it yet -- it’s too good to be true,” said Bilodeau. “The party’s just starting for Canada.”
Canada had not won a gold at either of the previous Games it staged in Montreal (Summer 1976) and Calgary (Winter 1988).
The 22-year-old Canadian, who won with 26.75 points, said he did not feel any special pressure to bring home the first gold but said his training mate Heil had inspired him.
“I was nervous but I was comfortable. Probably the most comfortable I’ve ever been. I went for it.”
Bilodeau had to wait for France’s Guilbaut Colas, the top finisher in the qualifying round, to complete his run before he knew he had won. Then he leapt to his feet and pumped his arms to a roaring crowd.
Defending champion Dale Begg-Smith, who is Canadian-born but has since adopted Australian nationality, took the silver and American Bryon Wilson won the bronze.
Begg-Smith, who has avoided the media and was close-mouthed about his Canadian roots and decision to leave as a teenager, said he skied as well as he could.
“I think it’s great that Canada won,” said the Vancouver native who skied on the Canadian team before moving to Australia to train. “The crowd was happy -- they went crazy.”
Once it was clear that Bilodeau won, the crowd of nearly 8,300 people spontaneously burst into the home country’s national anthem -- “O Canada” -- as they waved flags and jumped for joy.
Wilson, a 21-year-old American who just made his World Cup debut in December after a teammate was injured, was just surprised to be on the podium.
“A year ago I was just trying to make the Olympics,” said Wilson, who increased the difficulty of his air tricks on the final run, “I was really trying to up my speed to compete with these guys.”
Additional reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Frank Pingue.