Road To The Olympic Games

Emotional Renner caps career in final race

Sara Renner of Canmore, Alta., who "caught the bug" as a 12-year-old when the 1988 Calgary Winter Games staged cross-country ski events in her hometown, wrapped up a celebrated career Saturday at age 33 in another Games in Canada.

Poland's Kowalczyk wins gold, Renner is 16th

The Canadian Olympic experience has come full circle for Sara Renner.

The Canmore, Alta., native who "caught the bug" as a 12-year-old when the 1988 Calgary Winter Games staged cross-country ski events in her hometown, wrapped up a celebrated career Saturday at age 33 in another Games in Canada.

That Renner finished 16th among 50 starters in a gruelling, drizzle-drenched 30-kilometre race did nothing to diminish the moment when she crossed the finish line at Whistler Olympic Park and pumped her fists in the air.

"I just left everything out there today," Renner said after carrying her three-year-old daughter, Aria, in her arms through a series of TV interviews. "It was a beautiful race in the pouring rain — quite the way to go out. To hear everyone cheering for me, it was absolutely inspiring."

The 90-plus-minute endurance test ended in spectacularly dramatic fashion with a sprint to the finish by Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk and Marit Bjoergen of Norway. The Pole won by 3-10ths of a second — half a ski length — and both skiers collapsed in a heap.

Bronze medallist Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland was more than a full minute back.

Predicts sport will grow

Renner, too, was cheered all the way into the switchback stadium finish area and across the line, one hour 34 minutes 4.2 seconds after forging out into the rain in a mass start.

"I remember when I was 12 watching the Olympic Games in Calgary and just being so inspired by it," she said after scooping up Aria and being greeted with a hug and a kiss from husband Thomas Grandi, a former Olympic alpine skier.

"I think our sport will do nothing but grow, having the Olympics in Vancouver and exposing young people to the sport."

Would she wish this life on her daughter?

"If I had the chance, I would do it again. I just think it's been such great friends, such great challenges," Renner said, her voice breaking before a burst of nervous laughter halfway to a sob.

Renner has been looking over the skiing horizon to the time when she can spend full-time hours with Aria and not be away from home on the European circuit, or training 25 hours per week.

Her website states her "goals are to be a great mother and a contender in all events in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver."

Grandi was bursting with pride after the race.

"I just told her she's world class today," he said after finally relieving mom of their daughter. "She's worked so hard. She's in the world class game and it's hard to be at the top. But she achieved a lot in a sport where we didn't have a lot of past success, and that's always hard."

Renner became the first Canadian to win a world championship medal in a sport bred in the bone of some European countries, and won an Olympic silver medal with Beckie Scott in the 2006 Turin Games.

Together, she and Scott helped put women's cross-country on Canada's sporting map.

In Salt Lake City in 2002, Renner placed ninth in the Olympic sprint and 13th in the 10-kilometre classic.

She raised some eyebrows in 2001 when she was part of a Canadian women's team that posed nude in a calendar called "Nordic Nudes," all in an effort to raise money for the team.

More recently, environmentally conscious Grandi and Renner have started the Play It Cool campaign, which encourages travelling athletes and others to buy carbon offsets for all their air travels.

'I'll always ski'

Renner said her future will also include cross-country.

"I think I'll always be active, I'll always ski," said the woman who first began making 30-kilometre ski treks out to the nearest road from her parents Mount Assiniboine Lodge in British Columbia as a youngster.

"Just yesterday I saw [a pregnant] Beckie skiing on the ski trails and then she thought she was going into labour yesterday," Renner added, laughing.

It turned out to be false labour, but the point was made.

Aria has been on skis for almost a year, said Renner.

"She's already saying 'Look at me! Look at me! I'm skiing!"'

Any future bibs — racing or otherwise — will belong to Aria, although Renner said she may consider coaching.

"I'll definitely give back, and if [Canadian cross-country team coach] Dave Wood says I can help, I'll help. I probably won't put on a bib, though."