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THIS IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT: Hayley Wickenheiser (center), her hockey teammates and the rest of the Canadian Olympic athletes have put in the blood, sweat and tears, it’s now time for the big dance.
Shane Haltman/The Gauntlet

FAREWELL AND GOOD LUCK

Olympians pack up for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City

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There are certain words that get a new lease on life when the Olympic Games roll around. Words like "sacrifice," "passion," "commitment" and "vision" are normally meaningless, dusty and tired words, used in earnestness but with little real conviction.

Things change when one is faced with someone like Paula McKenzie. Her sheer ebullience provides a new context for the otherwise worn-out standbys of political orators. She's made sacrifices. She's passionate. She's committed and she has vision. All of which have culminated in her selection as one-half of Canada's first Olympic women's bobsleigh team.

"I'm just so pumped!" bubbled the Brooks, Alta. native after the first of several sendoff events. On
Feb. 5, she and another 156 Canadian Olympic athletes will blaze their trail to Salt Lake City. It's as though she has just realized where all the sacrifice, passion, commitment and vision has gotten her.

"I don't really think it had sunk in before today," she noted. "I've had a lot to do, I've been going a bit crazy. I have such a sense of accomplishment."

McKenzie isn't alone. On Wed., Jan 30, perpetual smiles and decidedly misty eyes on the faces of roughly 70 other Canadian Olympians indicated quite a few athletes suddenly realized what sacrifice and all the rest of it really means. During a sendoff luncheon at the Telus Convention Centre, hosted by the Calgary Olympic Development Association, the Canadian Olympic Association and the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Bid Corporation, athletes were honoured by roughly 800 dedicated supporters of Canadian amateur athletics and developmental sport.

"I want to say how proud we are of you already," said Paul Devilliers, Canadian Secretary of State for Amateur Sport. "I often tell my constituents that I can't guarantee the results but I can promise the effort. Likewise, I believe that the Canadian athletes are committed to performing to the best of their ability. I know you will do well in Salt Lake City."

Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier also took the microphone to wish the athletes the best in very orthodox terms.

"These athletes represent the sacrifice, passion and commitment of being truly Canadian athletes," he said. "You remind us of what it means to compete at the Olympic Games."

For athletes like McKenzie, it was a commitment to the contest that produced a passion for their sport.

"I used to do track and field," she explained. "I was going to retire and I still wanted to compete at something, but I didn't know what. I met one of the national team [bobsleigh] girls and I went out a couple of times and hated it, but then we had a competition and I realized I could compete at this, work hard, get better and the Olympics could be a possibility. So I was hooked."

For others, like luger Kyle Connelly, it was passion for the sport that propelled them to the Olympics.

"We all got into this sport because it's something that we love to do," he says. "The fun of everyday is sliding down that track. Going to the Olympics is just this huge perk."

Three-time Olympian, double medallist and keynote speaker Nancy Greene Raine threw a new term into the mix of sacrifice, passion, commitment and vision during her speech.

"The Olympics are not just another race," she emphasized, peering at the athletes over her spectacles. "The whole world is watching. Don't just compete-perform. Perform like you've never performed before. It's your moment. Take the pressure, thrive on it and perform to the maximum of your ability."

Some athletes left the luncheon with passion in check, commitment focused and vision sharply locked in on their upcoming performance.

"It doesn't matter if I win the gold medal so long as I have my best day," said skeleton racer Jeff Pain. "If I do my best, I can't do anymore."

Others seemed dazed, their vision scattered, an Olympic performance still a distant reality.

"I don't think it's totally hit me yet," remarked Connelly. "There's nine days left until the Olympics and we'll be there. I remember when there was 176 days left and that seems like yesterday. It's weird being this close; it's almost like you're not ready, but you are."

To conclude, master of ceremonies Shane Pearsall pointed out that not only are sacrifice, passion, commitment and vision enough, they're all that really matters.

"I remind you of the Olympic motto," he said. "The most important thing is not to win but to take part. And in our lives, the most important thing is not to triumph, but to struggle."

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