Heart of the matter

For some Olympians, like Dara Howell and Charles Hamelin, sport is a family vocation

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 24, 2014

For some Olympians, like Dara Howell and Charles Hamelin, sport is a family vocationThis article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 24, 2014

There would be a flower ceremony, press conferences and time to party like only the wildcats of extreme sports can. But first Dara Howell had to make a call. The voice on the other end of the line sounded halting and choked up, she says—not because it came from a hemisphere away, or because it belonged to a very old man, but because in all of his 98 years Ken Raven had never experienced a moment quite like this one.

His granddaughter—the one he’d tugged around the slopes of Hidden Valley Highlands when she was scarcely old enough to walk—was an Olympic gold medallist. Raven had risen in the dark on Tuesday to watch live TV coverage of Howell’s electrifying performance in women’s slopestyle skiing, settling amid family and friends back at their local resort in Huntsville, Ont. Even the roar of their small crowd didn’t quite bring it all home for Raven, a long-time ski instructor who still tries to get on the slopes every day. “I don’t think he even has words to describe what he’s feeling,” said Howell, 19. “He’s very proud of me, but I think he’s on the same page as me, where it doesn’t feel real yet. I just told him thank you for always being there. He’s the reason my entire family skis, so big thanks were definitely in order.”

There’s something about Olympic triumph, a young life coming to its defining moment, that summons thoughts of family. It’s a kind of narrative reflex that athletes experience as they stand bouquet in hand, at a loss for words and, in many cases, breath—and you won’t hear reporters complaining. How, after all, is an Olympian supposed to explain the source of his uncanny facility for triple corks or 105-mph slapshots, without sounding vain? So they point instead to parentage—the dad who is a former varsity star, the mom who woke early to drive to practice—and the media latch on. Over the course of a Games, or a country’s sporting history, the stories evolve into legend.

During Canada’s blazing start in Sochi, however, the family theme has been more than grist for heartwarming TV B-roll. Howell, who shared the podium with bronze medallist Kim Lamarre of Quebec City, counts among numerous Team Canada stars whose relatives loom large in their athletic lives, inviting age-old questions about nature and nurture. They won’t get settled over the next two weeks, of course. But Canada’s medal-bedecked debut in southwestern Russia at least points to one ingredient in Olympic success: good kin.

Ask Charles Hamelin. The loved ones of Canada’s short-track skating maestro have been front and centre since he got into the sport, but never more so than Monday, when the 29-year-old’s 1,500-m win lifted him into a tie with retired short-tracker Marc Gagnon for the most gold medals by a Canadian Winter Olympian. More than his parents and siblings, Hamelin’s relatives are also his coaches, his teammates and, on some days, his competitors, which goes a long way to explain the intensity that seems to radiate from his saturnine features. His father, Yves, is team leader of Canada’s formidable short-track program, while his younger brother, François, races against him. On Monday, François fell just short in a semi that would have put him up against Charles in the 1,500-m final. A third Hamelin brother, Mathieu, has retired from short track but came to Sochi to cheer his siblings on.

Then there’s Charles’s girlfriend, Marianne St-Gelais, who is competing for Canada in the women’s 500-m and the 3,000-m relay: if there can be such thing as a short-track power couple, this is it. When Charles completed his 1,500-m masterpiece at the Iceberg arena, toying with the other front-runners until he decided to take over the race, he rushed to St-Gelais’s arms, triggering a frenzy of snapping camera shutters at ice level. “If we have eye contact anytime, we’re done,” St-Gelais said later, laughing. “We have to kiss each other.” Yet she’s just as likely to offer up critiques of Hamelin’s performances as she is kisses, identifying key events or missed opportunities. “I know him, I know how he trains and I know what he’s capable of,” she explains. “He showed me with the 1,500-m that he’s going to be even stronger for the 1,000-m.”

Not every athletic family can stand this sort of proximity—especially in the crucible of an Olympic competition—and few turn one sport into a family vocation. For most, tone takes the place of technical expertise, as it did for Cody Sorensen, an Ottawa-born bobsledder on Canada’s four-man team. Sorensen, 27, believes having a former Olympian for a father played a big part in landing him in Sochi because his dad always made the Games seem an achievable goal. Ole Sorensen had competed for Canada at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and, while he spoke little of the hostage-taking and massacre of Israeli athletes that defined those Games (“He saw everything first hand,” says Cody. “The helicopters landed right in front of his dorm room”), he urged his son to seize the chance to compete when Bobsleigh Canada came around two years ago with an offer.

Sorensen, who was a track athlete before taking up sliding, never hesitated. “The Olympics had always been a part of the discussion in my family,” he says. “Just growing up around an Olympian, you could tell it gave him joy to be around other athletes, to stay involved. He’s big into it, and that rubbed off.”

For others, shared history is enough to generate inspiration. It was impossible to watch Alex Bilodeau’s gold-medal performance Monday in men’s freestyle moguls without remembering the defining story of the Montrealer’s career: his decision to drop hockey in favour of skiing because it was a sport in which his brother, Frédéric, who has cerebral palsy, could participate. Bilodeau’s gold medal at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver was our first on Canadian soil. Its indelible image, though, is that of him locked in a joyous embrace with his brother at the base of the course—a moment repeated in Sochi. Frédéric, as he did in Vancouver and in Turin before that, told Alexandre that he loved him and was proud of him. Win big, and who do you want with you? The ones who, all along, mattered most.

That couldn’t be the case, alas, for Howell. For someone as old as her granddad, a trip across oceans just didn’t make sense. So she made do Tuesday with the phone call, along with the presence of her mother, Dee, and father, Doug, along with her paternal grandmother Jacquie Howell, and her aunt, Kim Spiteri. They made a raucous contingent, bedecked with Maple Leaf flags and face stamps, cheering loudly as Howell appeared on the podium in the post-race victory ceremony. As for the star of the moment, well, her head was spinning too fast to contemplate a future beyond the next few glorious days. There’d be an all-out celebration with Lamarre, her good friend, and silver medallist Devin Logan of the U.S., she said. But beyond that she had no plans for the upcoming weeks except one: “I’m going to go home and ski with my granddad,” she said. “It’s going to be awesome.”

Maclean's February 24, 2014