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Event draws out fans, future athletes

Olympic Fever Still Burns Bright; Canadian medals source of inspirationBy Jason Markusoff, Calgary Herald
April 6, 2010
www.calgaryherald.com

If an Olympic celebration five weeks after the event can attract more than a thousand Calgarians, skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth figures she can start drawing more people than usual to sliding events.

Before her dramatic fifth-place finish in the Vancouver 2010 skeleton final once again made Hollingsworth a household name throughout Canada -- she first snagged bronze at 2006's Winter Games -- during normal seasons it has been just family and maybe some friends cheering her on at Canada Olympic Park runs.

"Sometimes we'll get lucky and have a school group come by, too," she said Monday.

There is still considerable post-Olympic enthusiasm for Canada's athletes and their elite achievements, judging by the throng Monday at Olympic Plaza to salute the Olympians and Paralympians who live or train in Alberta.

The event brought together Canadian medallists from eight Olympic events, from long-track speedskating and bobsled to curling and hockey.

That's more hardware than all Canadian athletes managed to score at Calgary's 1988 Winter Games, when the same plaza hosted nightly medal ceremonies and Canada won only five medals, none of them gold.

The excitement isn't just living on at autograph sessions and with folks still routinely wearing their Winter Games apparel -- even those red mittens on an above-freezing April day.

It's giving a boost to sport camps and development groups that are fostering the next Hollingsworth or Jon Montgomery, the skeleton gold medallist from Manitoba.

"We had a huge interest spike in skeleton during the Olympics . . . and even leading into right now," said Jovan Vujinovic, a coach with the development group behind the Slide 2014 and Slide 2018 programs.

He's gotten three to four calls a day from interested athletes. In years past, two interested athletes a week marked a good week.

Sliders are starting to come in much younger than usual, including one whose family moved from Ontario when he was just 13, Vujinovic said.

"We know it's a four-to six-year development curve, and we know if we can give them the time that they need on the track to develop as pilots, their physical skills will come afterward."

The Olympic Plaza event featured bobsleds, a skeleton sled and a luge for children to pose on -- but also in hopes some kids may want to take real steps to become just like their new idols.

Alberta Luge was advertising its camps for children ages 8 to 14, with April's session already filled up.

"I tell them it's like going down a frozen waterslide," luge coach Monica Gorham said.

The jump in interest from young would-be sliders is about the same as it was after the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, she said.

Jazmin Winstone-Fajardo, 8, named skeleton her favourite event.

"I'm kind of a daredevil, so I like to do stuff like that," she said.

Asked if she'd want to train for the headfirst sliding sport, Jazmin looked over at her grandmother. Well, she is already pretty busy with soccer and swimming and cycling, Jazmin explained.

After nine-year-old Ben Smith tried the skeleton sled on for size, mother Leslie Willis-Smith fretted about her son's prospect of taking up that sport.

"I don't know if I'd be too excited about that," she said. "I think it would be a bit nerve-racking."

Montgomery, a clear fan favourite judging by the crowd's applause, said he also hopes his team's regular-season events start getting more attention.

"The sliding sports, in a city with a million people, kind of get lost," he said.

But it would take a tiny fraction of that million channelling Olympic momentum into longer-term interest to help the amateur sports thrive, the medallist said.