Athens Before he took his first stride and tumbled his way into Canadian sports history, Kyle Shewfelt took a deep breath and someone in the crowd yelled, "We love you, Kyle."
Seventy seconds later, after enough flips and spins to turn a test pilot's stomach, every Canadian here and at home had a deep affection for the 22-year-old from Calgary with the silver stud in his right eyebrow and a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his right shoulder blade.
On a day that began so poorly for Canada, with the world champion men's eight rowing team getting blown out of the water, it was high-flying Shewfelt who came to our emotional rescue.
He didn't just win a medal in the men's floor exercise last night, the first medal to be awarded to a Canadian artistic gymnast at the Olympics. He won the gold. He won it on a bad ankle that had cost him months of training. He won it as much with his toughness as his ability to defy gravity while turning himself upside down and back.
It was a performance that had Shewfelt pumping the air with his fist after he landed his final tumbling run and his coach, Kelly Manjak, jumping up and down and screaming in delight.
"I was a kid when I started gymnastics and I had a dream," Shewfelt said after winning Canada's first gold medal at the Athens Olympics. "I did an interview once and I said, 'I want to go to the Olympics and I want to win.' Today, it happened. I hope this is an inspiration for the whole nation."
Many had hoped Shewfelt could win a medal here, but the ankle injury he suffered in March at a World Cup meet in Germany had cut into his confidence. No one, not Shewfelt or Manjak, was quite sure whether the right ankle could withstand the takeoffs and landings required to be an Olympic champion.
In his opening run, Shewfelt put those concerns to rest by nailing every aspect and then nailing his signature dismount, a four-element dash with a front and back layout and more twists than a bag of pretzels. His score came in at 9.787, which tied him with Marian Dragulescu of Romania. Shewfelt was awarded the gold through a tie-breaking formula under which the lowest score from each judge is dropped until the tie is broken.
Dragulescu drew the silver medal, while Jordan Jovtchev of Bulgaria was awarded the bronze.
"My first reaction [was]: 'I did it. I overcame a huge challenge,'." Shewfelt said. "I was elated. I yelled when I stuck my dismount, because it was like a release of emotion. There was so much that went into this. Not so much worrying, but anticipation and anxiousness and expectation. To be able to do one of the routines of my life, at the Olympic Games, in the Olympic final, is just the most amazing thing."
Shewfelt had been building for this moment. Two years ago on the World Cup circuit, he began to finish first in both floor exercise and on the vault. (He'll go for a second Olympic gold medal tonight in the men's vault.) Last year, he became the first Canadian to win two medals, both bronze, at the world gymnastics championships in Anaheim, Calif. It was a coming-out party for Shewfelt, and even Sports Illustrated took notice.
When the magazine did its Olympic predictions, it picked Shewfelt as the man of the mat, lord of the floor. And yet, it was oh so close to never happening.
Three years ago, Shewfelt was ready to give up the sport. He withdrew from the 2001 world championships to attend the University of Calgary. He informed Canadian gymnastics officials at a training camp in Calgary that he wasn't going to the worlds. That, he said, got him into a bit of trouble.
"I never imagined in a million years that I would receive as much negativity as I did from this choice," Shewfelt said. "I received a letter from the federation [Gymnastics Canada] about two weeks after the camp and it outlined the consequences of my actions. Basically, the letter said that I had ruined team morale, ruined my international reputation and that I had been withdrawn from the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia."
Disillusioned and upset, Shewfelt contemplated quitting. After some time off in California, he opted to return to the Altadore Gym Club in Calgary and continue his dream of one day wearing an Olympic medal.
"Have you ever imagined this moment?" he was asked last night.
"About 5,000 times today," he answered. "I was trying not to visualize the outcome. I was trying to visualize the routine. I came into this Olympic Games hoping for a medal. I wanted to have my best routine. When I was waiting for the other [competitors] to go and other scores to come up, I was happy and content. I controlled what I could control and the rest of it was not in my hands."
With his mother, Nola, and father, Wes, in the stands, along with his girlfriend, Melissa, Shewfelt smiled madly and flipped them the flowers he'd been handed and couldn't help but think of the man he admired most from the 2000 Olympics, triathlete Simon Whitfield, the first Canadian to win gold in Sydney.
"I love the come-from-behind," Shewfelt said. "I love the pushing of the limits and the personal success. I love it when someone has a goal and achieves it."
And now, having delivered a 24-karat performance of his own, there are a lot of Canadians who love him, too.