'The lights all came on': Alex Bilodeau's historic gold set tone for Vancouver Olympics
Freestyle skier spent rest of Games in a celebrity whirlwind: 'It was like a dream'
Alex Bilodeau was prepared to win a medal at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. What he hadn't planned for was the celebrity status he earned by being the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal on home soil.
"I was prepared [for the race] but not prepared for what came afterwards," said Bilodeau, who is now 32 and works in private investment in Montreal. "I often described it as living the life of Sidney Crosby for two weeks. It was really crazy."
Bilodeau's victory in the freestyle skiing moguls event came on the second day of competition and allowed the country to exhale. No Canadian reached the top of the podium at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal or the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics
The medal gave a nation starving for success something to feed on. It also provided some sunshine to a Games under a dark shadow following the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training accident in Whistler hours before the opening ceremony.
"Him winning that gold was a real shot of adrenaline to everything," said John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC).
"It was almost like somebody shoved a plug into the wall and the lights all came on. People were celebrating and we were over that hurdle of never winning at home. Suddenly all this confidence started to show, and we were on our way to becoming the team to beat."
Canada would win 26 medals in Vancouver, 14 of them gold, which at the time was a record for a country in a single Winter Olympics.
Bilodeau said there wasn't much talk among athletes over who would win the first gold.
"We never really spent too much energy on that," he said. "It was more of a media thing. Within the athletes we were laughing about it."
WATCH | Alex Bilodeau on being 1st Canadian to win gold at home:
In the days leading up to Vancouver Games there was plenty of speculation who could end Canada's Olympic jinx.
The men's downhill ski race was scheduled for the opening Saturday with both Whistler native Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Erik Guay considered contenders. Poor weather conditions forced the race to Monday, where Guay finished fifth and Osborne-Paradis 17th.
The women's moguls were held Saturday night. Jennifer Heil, the gold medallist from the 2006 Turin Games and winner of the previous four World Cup events she entered leading up to the Olympics was the favourite. But she watched American Hannah Kearney battle through rain, sleet, and slushy conditions to snatch away the victory on the final run.
Bilodeau had won the overall World Cup title in 2009. He came into the Olympics ranked fourth in the World Cup standings after recovering from a broken foot suffered in November.
On the evening of his race Bilodeau didn't feel any extra pressure.
"I was just focused on my race," he said. "I wasn't looking forward to being the first Olympic gold medallist in Canada. It was more about my performance, what I could do. I wouldn't have been less or more focused if Jenn had won the night before."
Bilodeau led the competition after his final run but then had to wait for French skier Guilbaut Colas, the last man down the hill, to make a mistake.
"In my mind I did what I could with the kind of ski conditions that were in place that night," he said. "I was really happy with what I delivered in a really precise moment."
When Colas made a mistake early in his run Bilodeau knew the medal was his.
"Nobody could really predict how big the Olympics we're going to be in Vancouver and how big a deal it was going to be for all Canadians," he said.
"I could barely even walk around the city without a police escort. It was weird, it felt like a dream. At the end of the two weeks I was a little bit overwhelmed. I wanted a little quiet."
The triumph took on a very personal note when Bilodeau dedicated the win to his brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy.
WATCH | Alex Bilodeau wins Canada's first ever gold medal at home:
"I have received so many letters and messages from across Canada and even the world," Bilodeau said. "It's too bad that we need to have a moment like this to understand what cerebral palsy is and to educate people."
Bilodeau thought about retirement after Vancouver. He decided to compete through to the 2014 Sochi Games where he became the first freestyle skiing gold medallist to defend his Olympic title.
"The next four years were the hardest years of my career," he said. "I understand now why it's hard to defend a gold medal.
"It was hard, but I'm glad I went for the challenge."
It's been 10 years since Bilodeau wrote his chapter in Canadian history, but for him it seems like yesterday.
"A lot of water went under the bridge since," he said. "There are great memories I will keep from my whole career but especially from the Vancouver Games."