Kings of the Hill

While it’s undeniable that Canadians will huddle around televisions for every puck drop Sidney Crosby and our national hockey team see at the 2014 Winter Olympics, there’s one event that just shouldn’t be missed: men’s moguls.

The reason? Alexandre Bilodeau and Mikaël Kingsbury.

These two freestyle-skiing Canucks solidified themselves as the sport’s undisputed front-runners; their dominating performances leaving the field in a wake of freshly carved powder, clambering for a distant third. Bilodeau, the reigning Olympic champ, was Canada’s golden boy from the 2010 Vancouver Games. He won our first Olympic title on home soil after a daring final run that edged out then Olympic champion and World Cup leader Dale Begg-Smith. He became an overnight icon, capturing hearts as he celebrated with his older brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy. He now stands on the verge of retirement, hungry for an unforgettable swan song capped off with back-to-back gold.

Kingsbury is touted as skiing’s Next Big Thing; the young top gun who’s mounted podium after podium to claim the world’s current No. 1 ranking. Now that the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, are about to begin,  Bilodeau and Kingsbury are set for a showdown that has all the makings of a Hollywood classic.

“It’s going to come down between the two of them, in my opinion,” says former Olympic moguls champion Jennifer Heil. “They both have to see a perfect run if they want to win, and that’s really raised the sport to a whole new level. It’s pretty incredible to see what they’re doing out there.” Of course, anything could happen at the Olympics — Bilodeau proved that in 2010 — but it’s hard to deny the facts.

Bilodeau has 11 World Cup gold medals under his belt and holds three International Ski Federation (FIS) World Championships in dual moguls. He’s made 29 podiums over his career, including eight of the 12 at last year’s events. The obvious trump card is his Olympic gold.

Kingsbury’s resumé is equally impressive. He won his first World Cup medal at Beida Lake, China, during the 2010-11 season (making him the first 18-year-old to win a World Cup event) and never looked back. The following season he tied the FIS consecutive win record after bagging six straight victories — eight of nine to start the year — and made all 13 podiums. In 2012-13, he won another six events and earned his first World Championship moguls title.

This year started with more of the same. Kingsbury retained the yellow bib (the signifier of the FIS Freestyle World Cup leader) after winning the first three events of the year, and Bilodeau finished a close second. In Ruka, Finland, the season’s inaugural competition, Kingsbury was forced to set a personal best on the course just to overcome the more experienced Bilodeau. “That was an awesome way to start the season,” says Kingsbury, 21, of his performance. “I think it was one of my best runs ever in competition.”

Kingsbury was looking like the clear favourite, but Bilodeau wouldn’t lie down. He responded with three straight victories in Deer Valley, Lake Placid and Val Saint-Côme. This will be his third Olympics, so experience is also on his side. Plus there’s the added motivation of his looming retirement. Bilodeau previously announced that Sochi is his last Olympics; he wants to focus on the next chapter of his life, which includes a forthcoming marriage and a business career once he’s earned his accounting degree from Concordia University. He’s savouring every moment before bidding adieu. “Everything’s got a better taste,” says the 26-year-old of his final season. “I want to take everything out of that experience before I move on.” Which, he hopes, includes one more gold medal.

While these teammates and fellow Quebecers have reached the top of their sport, they represent opposite ends of the athletic spectrum. Heil, who was training partners with Bilodeau until her retirement in 2011, explains that Bilodeau possesses remarkable strength and jumping power — “He’s so strong and you can see that in his technique” — while Kingsbury has the finesse. “He’s a lot like [Olympic gold medallist] Jean-Luc Brassard,” says Heil, who is also part of the CBC’s Olympic broadcast team. “He has this incredible touch and feel for the snow.”

Athletic therapist and performance coach Scott Livingston, physical trainer for both Bilodeau and Kingsbury at B2ten, a training ground for elite amateur athletes, notes that even their personalities are ying and yang. Bilodeau “is a high-intensity athlete,” he says. “He wears his energy on his sleeve. You feel his energy when he is working out.” Which comes as no surprise, considering Bilodeau notes jet fighter pilot and F1 pilot as his alternate career choices in his bio online.

Kingsbury, on the other hand, is far more laid back. “He is not easily ruffled and gives you the impression he is never out of his comfort zone,” says Livingston, adding, while confident, Kingsbury never comes off as arrogant. “You just know he knows he is good, and he will deliver, but there is nothing pretentious or in-your-face about him.”

Despite the swelling hype, neither athlete is overly concerned about the other. Instead, they’re focused on their respective games. “Right now I’m in the position that I’m the guy to beat,” says Kingsbury. “So I’m just going to try and stay there and look forward.”

Bilodeau echoes a similar sentiment. It’s great that we have two potential gold medallists, he says, but “I’m going there to win gold. I’m not going there to win silver … At the end of the day, whether he’s from Canada or he’s from Russia, I don’t mind.”

If these friendly rivals can win gold and silver at Sochi, it will be the sixth time Canadian athletes have ever gone one and two at the Winter Games. Of course, there are no guarantees at the Olympics — a hungry athlete can surprise all with a gutsy performance. But Bilodeau and Kingsbury are ready for all challengers, and that includes each other. In the words of Bilodeau: “From now on, the fun starts.”

www.olympic.ca

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Michael Hill

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