By Janet Guttsman
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - For Canada, a country always in the shadow of its bigger, brasher, richer neighbor to the south, the idea of being best in anything was always something of a stretch.
So Canada's table-topping status at the Vancouver Olympics went beyond a dream, a proud vindication of a program called "Own the Podium" that helped Canadian athletes compete with rivals in countries that have had deeper pockets for decades.
The country ended the Vancouver Games with a record 14 gold medals, including the much-prized ice hockey gold with a win over the United States, as well as 7 silver medals and 5 bronze.
"I truly believe that what they have done over the course of these past two weeks have inspired an entire nation to believe in ourselves."
It is the most medals Canada has won in any Olympics, winter or summer, and will cost Canadian organizers some C$1.7 million ($1.6 million) in prize money to the medalists.
"It's a lot of money and it's a lot of money that we very much enjoy spending," Chambers said.
The "Own the Podium" program used government and private sector funds to provide athletes with something over C$100 million to help them train to win.
Canada aimed to be first in the total number of medals won, but later admitted they would never catch a strong U.S. team.
"You reach for the stars and you grab what you can get," Chambers said. "If what we were seeking to grab was a little bit different from what we got it's still the best Christmas present I ever opened up."
The goal for the London Olympics in 2012 is for Canada to be 12th on the podium -- again measured in terms of the overall medal count.
But the program also prompted grumbles, especially as medals trickled in only slowly early on, and categories like heavily funded Alpine skiing never made it to the podium.
More damningly, rivals said "Own the Podium" had limited non-Canadians' time on a super-fast sliding track where Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili lost control and died in a crash on the eve of competition. Olympic officials said Kumaritashvili was to blame for the crash.
CHANCE TO COMPETE
But athletes said the program helped them compete with rivals in countries that have had deeper pockets for decades.
"I am just so thankful that we have the support we saw from Own the Podium," said Canadian ski cross gold medalist Ashleigh McIvor. "It is so great to be able to focus on what we need to do ... and know everything else is taken care of."
Silver medalist Cheryl Bernard, captain of Canada's women's curling team, said women had been especially quick to use the program, which offered access to coaches and psychologists.
"I think the funding has helped amazingly," she said. "It's given us all the opportunities we can have to train and outsource to sports psychologists and coaches, and I think the women are using it a lot."
The naysayers probably forget that it is only in the last 12 years that Canada started becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Winter Games, despite ski-friendly mountains in west and east and usually ample supplies of snow.
In Canada's last games, in Calgary in 1988, the country won just two silver medals and three bronze and finished a lowly 13th in the medals table.
(Additional reporting by Mary Milliken, editing by Frank Pingue)