There are athletes whose careers fade away and then there are those like Jennifer Heil who leave at the top.
Canada’s most successful female freestyle skier ended her career earlier this year with an unexpected sweep of the moguls and dual moguls gold medals at the world championships.
That performance earned Heil the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as The Canadian Press female athlete of 2011.
“I knew it was the last time I’d stand on a podium and hear the Canadian anthem,” Heil said of her double victory at Deer Valley, Utah. “It was an incredible moment that just kind of wrapped up my whole career in this one last great final moment.”
The 2006 Olympic gold medallist garnered 115 points to win the award in balloting among sports editors and broadcasters across the country.
Long-track speedskater Christine Nesbitt was second with 100 points, ahead of soccer star Christine Sinclair (84), short-track speedskater Marianne St-Gelais (39) and world champion boxer Mary Spencer (31).
The award is named after Rosenfeld, an Olympic champion and all-rounder who was voted Canada’s top female athlete for the first half of the 20th century.
Figure skater Patrick Chan won the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada’s male athlete of the year on Wednesday.
It is surprising Heil has not won the Rosenfeld Award before, considering a stellar career that saw her take five overall World Cup titles, 58 World Cup top-three finishes, four gold and two silver medals at world championships, and her gold at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, and silver at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
The wins at her final meet were especially significant because, while she had three world championship golds in dual moguls, in which two skiers come down the hill together, she had never before won the single moguls title.
Heil, a native of Spruce Grove, Alta., who has been based in Montreal since 2006, retired after the worlds in February to do charity work and concentrate on her studies at McGill University in business management, with a minor in political science.
She has not even been on skis since, although she planned to get back on the snow during a visit to Alberta to visit her family this week.
Then again, it took daily work from doctors, physiotherapists and others just to keep her upright to compete last season.
Just before the 2010-11 campaign, Heil suffered a bone bruise in a knee, an injury that takes 12 to 18 months to heal. But she kept going.
“My physiotherapist was massaging my leg after every run,” she said. “I was on the ice machine for hours.
“I had to get some lubricating injections to ski. It was tough to have confidence. I almost didn’t make it to the world championships and that was very important to me, to have one last shot at that title I had never won. So my medical team had to really get behind me.”
The week before, she made the painful announcement at a World Cup meet in Calgary that she would retire at the end of the season. Then, with a load of family and friends watching, she fell during her final race in Canada.
“I think I fell maybe three times in my entire career and I fell in that race in Calgary,” she said. “The world championships were four days later and you could say my confidence was at an all-time low.
“I wanted to get into the right mindset and I wasn’t getting there. Finally I just let it go, let the expectations go, and said ‘I’m here. I love this sport. It’s my last opportunity to go down my favourite hill.’
“It’s one of the hardest in the world and I just wanted to connect with that speed and joy. So I just let it go. And it all came together.”
Now she’s added female athlete of the year to her list of prizes.
“It doesn’t seem real, it’s a huge honour at the end of my career,” the 28-year-old said. “There are a lot of women that have won that I’ve looked up to my whole career, and aspired to be at their level of excellence. Nancy Greene (1967 and 1968) obviously being one. She was a legend. I really looked up to Catriona Le May Doan (1998, 2001, 2002) and her total domination of her sport (speed skating).”
Her goal now is to do as well off the trail as she did as a skier. Given the drive and dedication she put into that, it would be tough to bet against her.
After missing a medal by 1/100th of a point at her first Olympics in 2002, Heil shut down competition for a year to rework her technique and “rebuild” her body so she could compete with the world’s best.
She came back to win three World Cup titles in a row.
Before the 2006 Games, she discovered that her training expenses exceeded her funding and wondered whether she could continue. But seemingly out of nowhere, a group of business people from Montreal and Edmonton came together with the money she needed for perhaps the best training crew in the country.
She rewarded them by taking Canada’s first gold at the Turin Games and afterwards, she helped found B2ten, an organization that raises money to fund high level athletes, with her coach and boyfriend Dominick Gauthier and businessman J.D. Miller.
Heil fell in love with freestyle as a youngster watching Canadian Jean-Luc Brassard win gold at the 1994 Olympics and hopes to be an inspiration for another generation of young girls to pick up the sport. She runs a summer camp for girl skiers that has become so popular they’ve had to turn applicants down.
She recalled receiving a picture drawn by a girl ahead of the 2010 Games of her standing on the top level of a podium.
“I had drawn that same picture when I was nine years old and I took it and tucked it in my backpack and brought it to the hill with me,” said Heil, who ended up second to American Hannah Kearney in Vancouver.
She also works with the Because I’m a Girl program and last summer took three girls who had been identified as leaders on a 10-day trip to Rwanda.
And she designs jewellery for Birks. She showed one with five different sized rings that signify joy, team, target (or focus), courage and “everything hanging from a dream.
“I believe in my heart that I could challenge for a gold medal in Sochi (in 2014), but it felt like the right time (to retire),” she said. “I was in a fortunate position where I had accomplished my goals and I wanted to start building the next phase of my life.
“But of course I’ll miss being in the start gate. There’s nothing like that moment where your eyes narrow and you hear the starter and you push out of the gate and just let it happen. It’s a special feeling to be able to soar off a jump and travel 30 metres and do a backflip in the air. It’s like you’re flying.”