220 of them qualified for the Canadian Winter Olympic Team in Sochi, and every single one of those 220 athletes did our country proud. In sports that are decided in thousandths of a second, the margins are so small, the athletes are so superb, it takes your breath away.
One of these athletes -- 19 year old Dara Howell -- is from Huntsville. She grew up at Pow Wow Point Lodge, one of our Resorts of North Muskoka members, located on Peninsula Lake. She learned to ski at Hidden Valley Highlands. And she discovered a passion for Slopestyle.
Gold at the Olympics is among the very hardest awards to win. Dara, in this, the first time her sport of Slopestyle was included at the Games, won it in style. She introduced us to a whole new language: a 'disaster' - which is a trick done over a kinked rail (at least for Dara... for the rest of us, it may have other definitions); a Cork, which is a backwards thrown off axis spin with the feet never over the head; a Misty, which is an off axis flip thrown forward with a spin. The most 'common' (if you can call it that) is a Misty 5, or 540 degrees. Just an aside, Dara put down a Misty 9. Yes, NINE. It had to that point never been done, by anyone. That's how you win Gold. Oh, yes, and Stomped -- which is what they say when you put it down on the hill, really truly put it all down and make it look easy. Dara Stomped the hill at Sochi.
So when she came home, Huntsville threw her a party. A big one. It was great. After some ceremonies at the Town Hall, including Audi showing up to present her with a brand new car (that's the sort of thing they do for gold medal winners. They don't, we point out again, have to do it very often...) Dara rode into Rivermill Park with a police and RCMP escort, on top of a fire truck. To say the kids in the crowd loved it would be a huge understatement.
Rivermill was packed. Totally packed. And although it was evening, and in the midst of one of our coldest winters, at Dara's Welcome Home it was not cold, but GOLD!
Joanne Cunnington and sister June had whipped up 1500 special cupcakes for the occasion -- which lured Jacquie in!
All the stores sported posters for Dara -- some printed, some handmade, all brimming with pride and enthusiasm and welcome.
There were speeches, of course... MP The Rt. Hon. Tony Clement was there. So was MPP Norman Miller. Mayor Claude Doughty, the host of the occasion. Parachuting in on video link was Kathleen Wynne. And the mother of Sarah Burke... and that put a tear in the eye, I must say.
And then there was young Kyle Mattice, ten years old, and a slopestyle skier. He's competing on Sunday at the Ontario Games. We bet Dara will be on hand to cheer for him. Because of Dara, Kyle "retired" from ski racing when he was seven because all he really wanted to do was jump and ride rails, like his inspiration, Dara. He spoke really well -- it's wonderful to see such poise and hear such excitement from the kids, it really is. And, at the end of the day, Kyle and the other kids in that crowd, they are what this is all about.
There were thousands of people jammed in that Park, in the cold, cheering. Hundreds of the kids lined up to get Dara's autograph on a postcard.
We caught up very briefly with Dara's parents, Doug and Dee. I don't know how long it is going take them to come back to Earth after this wild ride.
The Town even decorated the garbage cans for the occasion...
This crowd, this included those who got up at 1 a.m. to watch the Qualifying rounds... who got up at 4 a.m. to watch the Final Runs... who never went to bed but gathered at Hidden Valley to jump up and down and cheer themselves hoarse.
The crowd was decked to the gills in red and white. They cheered, they sang our anthem. They joined in to sing Dara's own song, Go Dara Go... They had signs, and flags, and Olympic mittens...
And a shout out to the kids in The Song Project from the High School, who took to the stage and put on a performance as polished and professional as anything we've seen. These gals were outstanding!
Fireworks were set off early enough in the evening that the littlest ones could enjoy them and then get home to bed before the band took to the stage. The ducks that snooze peacefully on the river under the Bridge got a bit of excitement...
After the fireworks, while Dara signed endless autographs, the crowd geared up to rock out the night with Down With Webster. Now, they are fun, and had the young crowd up and cheering. I must confess I am getting old enough that music so loud I can feel it in my bones is no longer my 'cup of tea'... but I must also confess that by crossing the river, we could listen very comfortably, watch the light show, and hear the crowd screaming in approval, so it was a good choice for the demographic!!! (as they say!)
This is all heady stuff for a nineteen year old -- and it is an experience she will never forget. Throughout, she was gracious, friendly, open and fabulous with the kids. Her enthusiasm and energy is contagious.
She has done something in her young life that few people will ever even have the chance to do... Olympic Gold. That medal around her neck is heavy, both literally and figuratively, and it has forever changed her life.
Dara was presented with the Key to Huntsville. The street leading into Rivermill Park was re-named Dara Howell Way.
Oh, and did we mention? Audi rolled into town, to present her with a brand new car... they do that for gold medallists, and they don't have to do it very often.
There are always naysayers, those who will say that money spent on a big party for one person could be better spent elsewhere. Fixing potholes. Donated to a charity. Used to set up a fund for kids in sports. Money can always be put to better uses -- or perhaps that should read 'to other uses.'
This money was spent to say thanks to Dara for representing Huntsville and Canada so brilliantly to the World; to Celebrate Great, (which we should take every opportunity to do. Great is rare enough it calls for celebration) ; to remind those of us who are old enough to have almost forgotten and to inspire those of us young enough to grab that dream that if you truly commit to a dream, with all the hard work, sacrifice, tears and trouble that comes with that, if you hold the course, and are brave, bold, and willing to risk, willing to push limits, driven to go farther, faster, higher... It can come true. From a modest beginning at Hidden Valley Highlands to the breath-takingly huge course at Rosa Khotur in Sochi, it can come true.
And that is worth every penny.
If you've been off on another planet and didn't see the run, you can watch it here. Keep in mind that that final jump is approximately 45 feet high, and to get to a safe landing zone you have to travel over 75 feet....
Thanks Dara. You have done us proud... You are amazing, and we can't wait to see what you do next.