Opinion | Mikäel Kingsbury unseated from Olympic moguls throne by the young Swede he used to coach

BEIJING There’s a kind of historical symmetry that the athlete widely regarded as the greatest moguls skier in history was born in 1992, the same year the moguls debuted as an official event at an Olympics.

At age nine Mikäel Kingsbury watched the moguls on TV at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and famously drew a picture of the Olympic rings with the inscription: “I will win.” By 19, he’d win the first of his record nine Crystal Globes, emblematic of the best skier of the World Cup season. Now age 29, on Saturday night Kingsbury appeared to be in an excellent position to make doubly good on that childhood promise by claiming five-ringed gold for a second straight Games.

In the bitterly cold bluster of the desolate mountain peaks northwest of Beijing, Kingsbury had just laid down his best run of the day at a clutch moment, aceing the third leg of the three-legged final on the Secret Garden Olympic Moguls Course. He’d bested the score of Ikuma Horishima, the rising Japanese star who most figured would be the chief threat to beat Kingsbury. With his top score of the day in the books, the Canadian from Deux-Montagnes, Que., sat in first place.

“There was one guy to go and I was Olympic champion,” Kingsbury would say later.

Alas, Kingsbury would not wake up Sunday in China as a two-time Olympic gold medalist. As it turns out, that one guy to go, Walter Wallberg – a 21-year-old Swede who’d spent a lot of the past couple of years rehabbing a knee injury — came through with a brilliant final run that outdid Kingsbury and vaulted a decided underdog to the top of the podium. Kingsbury was left to collect his second career Olympic silver medal to match the one he took home from Sochi eight years ago.

It was still an unprecedented accomplishment. Kingsbury became the first men’s moguls skier to win a medal in three straight Olympics. Still, he couldn’t hide his disappointment at the conclusion of a four-year journey that included his own lengthy rehab from a broken back in 2020 and the stress of wearing what he has called “the target on my back” of being the undisputed world No. 1. All that slogging, all that time. And, in a performance-on-demand sport, a quadrennial’s success comes down to one night’s work.

It was all enough to get one of Canada’s great athletes pondering his athletic mortality.

“You get so close… I think about in four years, I’ll be 33,” he said. “I’m not 100 per cent sure if I’ll be there. I’m getting older.”

The difference on Saturday, in the end, was speed. In a sport that combines points for one’s time down the hill with style points for jumps and turns, Wallberg’s gold-medal run down the 250-meter course was more than a second faster than Kingsbury’s. So while Kingsbury won the head-to-head points battle with his peerlessly smooth turns, and while the Swede and the Canadian were separated by a mere tenth of a point in their jumps, Wallberg earned a 1.74-point advantage being quicker to the finish line.

You know what they say about young legs. On a night when Kingsbury complained that the minus-13 C chill wasn’t conducive to firing one’s muscles fast, Wallberg registered no such quarrel.

“Walter is very, very quick from side to side – probably the quickest in the world,” Kingsbury said. “Props to him. He deserves it. I did everything I could. I’m very proud … It’s disappointing, maybe a tiny, tiny bit.”

Disappointing or not, for Kingsbury it had to be at least a little eye-opening. Moguls, after all, has traditionally been a young man’s game. If Kingsbury had won Saturday, he would have become the oldest Olympic men’s moguls champion in Olympic history. Wallberg spent time in post-victory interviews gushing about how Kingsbury had been his idol growing up. Heck, he’d also been his coach.

“It’s awesome. I coached Walter when he was 14 or 15 in Sweden,” Kingsbury recalled. “He’s a good kid. He comes from a great family. He works so hard. This guy’s an actual beast. It’s quite amazing. My first Olympic podium, I was with Alex (Bilodeau, who won Olympic gold in the event in 2010 and 2014). I grew up watching (Bilodeau). The wheels spin.”

Said Wallberg, recalling those days when he was the student of the man he’d just defeated: “It was very inspiring. Mik has always been an idol of mine. I remember asking him how he’s tuning skis, tips on the moguls, things like that. It was special, for sure.”

So maybe that’s what cost Kingsbury a second straight gold medal: He’s too good a coach.

“Yeah. I don’t know if I have used my tips. But maybe a little bit,” Kingsbury said with a laugh. “No, he’s just a great skier. He’s passionate, too.”

On Saturday night, even as Wallberg basked in the victory, the Swede described his Canadian idol as “the greatest of all time.” As for precisely how much longer Kingsbury plans to keep competing, even in the course of a series of post-race interviews and a press conference he offered conflicting hints. At one point he said, “I don’t want to look too far ahead.” At another: “I’ll keep going.”

Kingsbury was asked if his sport’s “throne” had just been handed to a worthy heir.

“Nah,” Kingsbury said. “He gets to sit on the throne today. It was a special run. He deserves it. I’m very happy for him. I’ve known Walter for a long time. I told him, ‘Welcome to the club.’ … I’ll keep going. I love what I do. I’ll just keep working hard for the next few years.”

If “few” means four, maybe we haven’t seen the last of Kingsbury on an Olympic stage. But on a night when the student beat the master, when the longtime fan toppled the idol, it’s worth wondering if the historical symmetry was trying to tell Kingsbury something. As he said himself, the wheels spin, and they stop for no one.

Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk


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