Olympian to watch: Freestyle skier Jennifer Heil

Freestyle skier Jennifer Heil won gold in the 2006 Olympics, and hopes are high she’ll be on the podium again

Olympian to watch: Freestyle skier Jennifer Heil

Source: Best Health Magazine, January/February 2010; photography courtesy of The Canadian Freestyle Ski Asso

Watch Jenn Heil launch herself into the crisp blue air, execute a back flip, make a perfect landing on her skis and continue at top speed down the mogul-strewn slope, and you’d never guess that seven years ago this
Olympic champion could barely walk without excruciating pain.
Freestyle skiing’once called hot-dogging’is a crazy, explosive, knee-busting sport that alternates thumping down bumpy moguls with performing airborne acrobatic tricks. When Heil started competing in 1999 at age 16, she relied on natural
talent and exquisite technique, which made her the Canadian champion that same year. It also brought her within kissing distance of a bronze medal in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Olympics‘in fourth place by only 1/100th of a point.

Heil knew she’d have a real shot at the next Olympics, in Turin, Italy, in 2006. But when she started to do the kind of training she thought elite athletes should do’keep pushing, on and off the slopes, to train harder, jump higher and pump more iron’she developed chronic shin splints and constant searing pain in her lower back. ‘I couldn’t even do one full [ski] run,’ says Heil, 26. She could have given up right then. ‘There were a lot of reasons for me not to go to the Turin Olympics,’ she says. But Heil has never been one to follow a predictable path.

She grew up in a most unlikely environment for a future ski champion’the flat prairie town of Spruce Grove, Alta., just west of Edmonton. But her father, a lawyer, was an avid skier and took the family on vacations to Jasper. Heil was on skis from the age of two. At nine, she was leafing through Sports Illustrated when she saw a photo of an Olympic gymnast. ‘I saw the intensity and the focus in the face, and right then I knew I wanted to be in the Olympics one day,’ she recalls.

So, instead of letting chronic pain derail her Olympic dreams, she decided to swallow her pride, retreat from competition and go back to square one. She took the 2002-03 season off from racing and consulted a physiotherapist, an osteopath and a massage therapist to rebuild her body. She even relearned how to walk, rolling off the toes. She took up yoga to improve her flexibility. She rested more than she had in years. The gradual rebuilding paid off triumphantly: Heil took Olympic gold at the 2006 Games in Turin.

While Heil thrills to the single-focus intensity of sport, she also loves its let’s-have-fun sense of play. That’s why she’s such a strong supporter of Right to Play, acting as an Athlete Ambassador travelling to Rwanda in 2007 to visit orphanages and schools, and to talk about HIV protection and her own experi­ences as an athlete. ‘As athletes, we get the power of sport, and I’m not talking about medals. We just want kids to go out and experi­ence that same joy.’

During the trip to Rwanda, and to Burkina Faso in 2008 on behalf of Plan International‘s global campaign ‘Because I am a Girl,’ aimed at improving the lives of girls, Heil saw first-hand how children become transformed when they’re on the soccer field. ‘It really is an escape for them,’ she says. She learned that lack of equipment is no barrier; kids will tie a long-sleeved shirt into knots to make a ball. She witnessed remarkable generosity: In one village where she spoke, she was given a thank-you gift of a live chicken. ‘These are some of the poorest people in the world, where every day is a struggle for survival, and yet they were giving to me,’ Heil says. ‘They inspired me much more than I inspired them.’

Heil came away from her African experiences with the realization that many girls have the same drive and dreams of success that she’s always had, but not the opportunities. She now spearheads Plan’s campaign to raise $100 million over five years to educate girls in impoverished countries.

Heil’s other off-hill interests transcend skiing. She’s partway through a commerce degree from McGill University, although it’s a slow process due to her gruelling schedule. She takes regular non-ski vacations to beaches in Hawaii or Nicaragua to indulge her love of surfing. She has a boyfriend, Dominick Gauthier, who also happens to be her coach‘a potentially tense situation that they defuse by rigid compartmentalizing. ‘When I fight with my coach, I get a hug from my boyfriend!’ she jokes. ‘I really believe in balance in everything.’

Heil took the entire 2007-08 season off to recuperate and rebuild once again, then came back strongly in 2009 to win World Cup gold at Cypress Mountain, B.C.’s new Olympic venue. She is now the favourite to win Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal on home turf. Heil goes into her event, held on the first day of competition, with eight Canadian championship titles, four world championships, 37 World Cup medals (including 19 golds) and one Olympic gold.

For these Games, Heil won’t be focusing on maintaining her title; she’ll be looking on this race as a brand new challenge. It’s an approach she learned in Africa, where life is often so difficult’especially for girls’that every day presents new challenges. ‘There’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about that,’ she says. ‘When I start out of the gate, I’ll be taking those girls with me.’

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This article was originally titled "Rebuilding her Olympic dream" in the January/February 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.