Arriving late to a Montreal restaurant, Caroline Brunet held a hand to her chest, as if to catch her breath. “My heart is beating so fast” she said. “What a morning.” In addition to her normal pre-Olympic schedule, which would kill the average Canadian, she had to film a last-minute video for a sponsor and pose for a newspaper shoot.
Over lunch, though, with sunlight streaming through the skylights and a plaintive jazz trumpet playing softly in the background, Brunet relaxed, and after a while, it was easier, when asked, to recall early signs of her extraordinary com-
petitive spirit. Growing up in Lac Beauport, Que., she said, j her older brother and his friends would only let her play j sports with them if she kept up. That stipulation might have j deterred other little girls. Not Brunet. Even then, she liked the challenge. “I was not happy unless I beat them,” she says,
“I don’t know why. I have always been that way.”
Brunet is still propelled by that hunger to win. It’s what j made the 31-year-old the reigning world champion, and the favourite to capture Olympic gold in the women’s K-l 500 on the last day of the Games. And with partner Karen
Furneaux ofWaverley, N.S., Brunet also has a chance to win the K-2 500, a race that begins only an hour after the finish of her individual event. All that is great, but she is most excited about her duties at the opening ceremonies on Sept. 15. There, the four-time Olympian will hoist the Maple Leaf and lead the Canadian team into Stadium Australia. Brunet is overwhelmed with pride. “When I found out,” Brunet says, “it was such an honour.”
Dreamy stuff for someone who paddled almost anonymously for much of her career. Fier sport gets little financial support or public attention in Canada, so Brunet spent much of the last seven years training in Europe. It paid off, and her progress became impossible even for Canadians to ignore. After completely dominating the 1999 world championships, where she captured the 200-, 500and 1,000-m titles, Brunet was named Canadas athlete of the year. For all her time away, though, home is on a lake near St-Saveur, in the Laurentians north of Montreal. “I’m only there about two months of the year,” she says, “but I love it.” Most top Canadian canoeists and kayakers remain unheralded in their own land, but these Games could change that. Whitewater kayakers Margaret Langford of Lions Bay, B.C., and David Ford of Edmonton, who won the K-l slalom at the world championships last year, have serious medal aspirations. And brothers Tamas and Attila Buday of Mississauga, Ont., who will compete as a pair in the C-2 500 and C-2 1,000, finished fourth at the 1999 worlds.
Still, all eyes will be on Brunet. Fans see in her the closest thing to a sure bet Canada has in Sydney. She knows there are no guarantees, and relies instead on training, taking her body to its limit—with predictable results. “I have neck problems, a hip problem, a bad shoulder, a bad bum,” she says. “I mean, I’m getting old, and my body is worn out.” Far more painful, though, were the last few metres of the 1996 Olympic final, when Brunet was nosed out at the line by longtime rival Rita Koban of Hungary. That defeat plays like a looping reel in her memory, a reminder against overconfidence. Not that she needs more motivation. The goal of gold is before her. “Its exciting and scary at the same time,” she says, “because I have been doing it for so long, and my expectations are so high. For me, it is the race.” And she wants to win because, well, she’s always been that way.
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