This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on December 14, 2009
Canada's Olympians: Jennifer Heil
Every conversation with Canadian mogul queen Jennifer Heil heralds a new adventure: surfing, Third World development, politely picking the pockets of Canada's business elite, rock climbing, jewellery design - and that thing she does so well with a pair of skis and a total absence of fear. When first we spoke in February 2006, she was making the rounds of Turin WINTER OLYMPIC venues as a self-appointed Team Canada cheerleader. She'd won Canada's first gold medal in a rocket ride down the Italian course on the first day of Games competition. Thereafter she was everywhere, willing her compatriots to Canada's best Olympic showing. "It's extremely nerve-racking," she said. "It's harder to watch than it is to SKI." Hard to imagine. An Olympic mogul final is four years of preparation boiled down to 30 seconds of bumps and jumps on a 26-degree incline. But even there, especially there, Heil is a women in control.
Almost four years to the day - Feb. 13, 2010 - should find Heil on Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver gunning for an equally impressive start to Canada's Olympic fortunes. No matter the outcome, and Heil certainly is a medal favourite, her race will punctuate four years of personal development and giving by one very complex Olympian.
Most recently, before heading off to the snows of Europe, she waxed enthusiastic about a dream gig with Birks to design a line of jewellery. She immersed herself in the five-month project, dropping in to work with Birks's Montreal design team every week she was in town. "I live right around the corner," she says. "I would arrive smiling and leave smiling all the way." Each sterling silver piece incorporates five rings, each with a different texture and each representing a word she believes contributes to success: dreams, focus, team, courage, joy. Don't read anything into their silver content, she says with a laugh. That is a concession to affordability.
The price of gold is indeed high. At the age of 26, she's already been so beaten up by the mogul hill she has twice taken a year off competition, in 2003 and in 2008, to rehabilitate and rejuvenate. Even so, she's an eight-time Canadian champion, a four-time overall World Cup champ and has already qualified for her third Olympics. She finished fourth at her first Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, missing the podium by one one-hundredth of a point, in an event that is both timed and judged on technique. She was just 18 and she finished that season so battered she could barely walk in ski boots. Three guiding words - focus, team and courage - combined to make 2003, her year off skis, a pivotal time.
Support back then for top-rung national team athletes was dismally low, a fact that frustrated Dominick Gauthier, her young, ambitious coach. "We had minimal resources and we were asked to spread them equally across everybody," he says. "How frustrating is that for a coach who is trying to build champions like Jennifer Heil?"
Gauthier quit the team and Edmonton-born Heil moved to Montreal, stuck with her coach and enrolled at McGill. Gauthier and Heil sought private funding. Doug Goss, an Edmonton lawyer, businessman and a Heil family friend, gathered 10 silent partners who bankrolled some of Heil's expenses. In Montreal, Gauthier turned to his friend and mentor J.D. Miller, a mergers and acquisitions specialist. Miller not only raised tens of thousands from Montreal's business elite, he invited Heil to live with his family.
A team was assembled to rehabilitate Heil. They included an osteopath, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist, and Scott Livingston, then the strength and conditioning coach for the Montreal Canadiens. "She was all banged up," he says, likening her to a race car after a bad run at the track. "We rebuilt that car and refined that car. Now it's ticking over very well," says Livingston. Her chassis, five feet three and 121 lb., is markedly different than that of a hulking hockey player, but they have nothing to teach her about conditioning or intensity, he says. "Just because she looks little doesn't mean she isn't very powerful and strong."
Heil says she won in Turin because of her team, and the confidence that comes from knowing "you have done absolutely everything you can." Post-Games, Heil talked with Gauthier and Miller. "Other athletes need to experience this, it was that incredible," she said. "I didn't think I should be the only athlete receiving this. It needs to be shared."
The result was B2ten, a program managed in part by Miller, with the backing of Heil and Gauthier, her coach and now boyfriend. More than $3 million was raised by donors. Twenty-four invited elite athletes are part of the program, and about 20 of those are likely bound for Vancouver's Olympics. The money is spent on their unique needs - everything from travel and living subsidies to equipment and training, complimenting new elite funding programs like Own the Podium, says Gauthier. "Jenn's victory [in Turin], all credit to her, created B2ten in the shape and form it is now," says Gauthier.
Her success in sport lets her lend her voice to a variety of causes. Among them, she travelled to Rwanda, as one of many Olympians who support Right to Play, a sports-based humanitarian agency helping the world's disadvantaged children. She's also an ambassador for Plan Canada's Because I am a Girl, a program promoting girls' rights internationally as a vehicle for social change. In 2008, she visited Burkina Faso, one of Africa's poorest countries. She toured a school where sponsorship money gave girls a rare chance for education, and was touched by the audacity of their dreams to be doctors, nurses, lawyers.
For now, her own dreams focus on Cypress Mountain, Feb. 13, 2010, and all it takes to get there. "It's so rich to be able to compete in my country," she says. After, there's a commerce degree to finish, and B2ten, among other causes, to nurture. And a career to consider, on snow or off it. "She really wants to leave her mark in the sports system," says Gauthier, "and in the world in general."
Her mentor Miller also looks beyond the finish line. "I see Jenn as someone who has the potential not only to win gold medals," he says, "but to be the CEO of one of Canada's top 20 companies." It took 30 seconds and a young lifetime to win gold. It's how she's used that opportunity that creates a champion.
Jennifer Heil: Olympic Nuggets
Do you have a pre-event ritual? It has to do with music. Using the music to get my energy to the right level. A lot of visualization. And a little bit of dancing in my ski boots.
What music do you listen to while training? I like something that has a good beat. Usually high energy so it's usually hip hop of some sort. Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, in that vein.
Do you remember your first competition? I do, yes. I was terrified. We drove from Edmonton to Red Deer and I remember [the hill] was icy. Rock-solid ice. I kind of remember crossing the finish line and thinking, I can't believe I was able to do that. I was probably 10.
Do you have an inspirational quote? "Be comfortable with being uncomfortable." I don't know where I picked that up. I had that written on the back of my door growing up.
Do you have a guilty pleasure? Chocolate. Chocolate brownies. Jewellery.
Maclean's December 14, 2009