SPORTS

NEVER LET GO

One-time rivals learn to work together, and dominate the world

KEN MACQUEEN February 27 2006
SPORTS

NEVER LET GO

One-time rivals learn to work together, and dominate the world

KEN MACQUEEN February 27 2006

NEVER LET GO

One-time rivals learn to work together, and dominate the world

SPORTS

BY KEN MACQUEEN • They were bitter rivals who became friends; obsessive athletes who shed their selfishness to become better men. And on a Friday night in Cesana Pariol, Italy, on a skeleton track in the Alps above Turin, Duff Gibson, a fireman, and Jeff Pain, a landscape architect, showed the world that sport can elevate you to levels far above even an Olympic podium.

The record will show that Gibson, over two runs, beat Pain by 0.26 of a second, less than a blink of an eye. It will note that Gibson, at age 39, became the oldest gold medallist in an individual event in Winter Olympic history.

Other things aren’t so easily measured but they are beautiful to see.

There was the wild final run by Pain as he fought to overtake Gibson’s lead. Off the track he is a man who keeps emotions in check. On it, he careened on the edge of madness, slamming a wall, bouncing his skeleton sled onto one runner, hanging on for dear life because one of the first things he learned in this game is you never let go. Never. His was the fastest ride of the last run—125.1 km/h—but it wasn’t enough to catch his teammate. It was Gibson, the emotional one, whose run was icy smooth, surgically precise and utterly in control.

It was, of course, a great moment for the national team, which seemed to gain traction as the first week ended. And for the once chronically underfunded, underappreciated and largely unknown skeleton crew. Teammate Paul Boehm finished a remarkable fourth, missing a medal sweep by the narrowest of margins. A night earlier Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards, of Eckville, Alta., won bronze—an achievement that left her so elated she was up the entire night, phoning friends, emailing, pouring five pages of jumbled thoughts into her Olympic diary. Her medal is the payoff for 10 years of obscurity, occasional disappointment and doubts. She almost quit the sport after narrowly missing a qualifying spot for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Last Friday, however, running on adrenalin after four hours sleep, she had no regrets. Now it’s time for a much-delayed honeymoon with her husband, professional

rodeo rider Billy Richards. They married one Saturday last June. “We had a big party Saturday night. Took all the stuff down on the Sunday, and I was training on the Monday.” Her husband, more than most, she says, knows what it takes to make it to the Olympics.

After Friday’s win, it was Pain’s and Gibson’s turns to put their emotional affairs in order. There were joyous, tearful embraces with their wives, and then a press conference so honest and raw and inspiring, it should win a medal all on its own.

They talked about their uneasy early days together.

Pain was the veteran. Prickly, rarely willing to share with his teammates all that he’d learned. “I was a pretty selfish slider,” he said, “I know I was not the best teammate.” Gibson was the ambitious newcomer, who quit bobsleigh for the skeleton team in 2000,

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hoping it offered a better shot at Olympic glory. “I used to be the new guy trying to chase him,” said Gibson. “I was the new hack with not much to offer.” Two years ago, with Pain hobbled by an injury, they made peace, and decided to work together. “I was very lucky that Duff took a chance,” said Pain.

“We achieved more together than we could have apart.” To lose to his partner, he said, “was a great honour.”

Most of the team are full-time athletes with full-time jobs. Boehm is a carpenter,

Pain a landscape architect, and Duff, who announced his retirement from skeleton with his gold medal win, is a Calgary fireman. He trained between shifts and on his days off.

He worked extra summer shifts, and his colleagues spelled him off in the winter.

Yet last December, his Olympic dream almost slipped away. He left the World Cup circuit to be with his ailing father, Andy, who died of cancer over the Christmas holidays.

His father was his teacher, his coach and his mentor, and he was asked at the news conference if he was dedicating this medal to him. Through his tears, Gibson said that his father loved winning and athletics, but he also knew this, “that in the big picture, it is just sport.”

And so Gibson decided this before the biggest race of his life: “If I won the race I’d try to be as gracious a winner as I could be. And if I was unable to win today, I would try to be as gracious a loser as I could be. And that’s what I would dedicate to my dad.”

Mission accomplished, Mr. Gibson. M

with Jonathon Gatehouse