Toronto, Canada – By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Competing at a home Olympics is a rare opportunity for an athlete, bringing with it weighty expectations that can both inspire and paralyze.
Canadian Olympians have not handled such pressure well in the past and, with the Vancouver Winter Games looming large, must face up to a national reputation for wilting at the big moment.
Canada has hosted the Olympics twice before -- the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988 -- but Canadians are still waiting to celebrate a gold-medal win on home ground.
Canada has invested heavily to make sure its athletes are not kept off the top step of the podium on its own territory for a third time.
The government and corporate sponsors have poured $110 million into "Own the Podium," an ambitious program with the stated objective of putting Canada at the top of the Vancouver medals table with a good number of golds.
Millions more have been put into project "Top Secret" a clandestine operation designed to give Canadian athletes a scientific edge over the competition.
With the help of some of the country's top researchers, Canadian snowboarders will have new high-tech composite boards to help them in their chase for medals while downhill racers have used missile-guidance systems to trim fractions of seconds off their times.
As the days tick down to the February 12 opening ceremony the pressure goes up and the way in which athletes deal with the expectations will be key to them realizing their Olympic dreams.
"I was worried and nervous about everything. I'm not sure what triggered it but I looked down and saw the Olympic rings on my bib and thought: 'Holy crap I'm in trouble'.
"The whole magnitude of it just hit me," added Stemmle, who missed a gate and was disqualified. "It's not just another race; it's bigger than anything you'll ever do, especially with it in Canada, it's going to be the biggest thing they can ever possibly imagine."
Appearing on the Olympic stage in front of a demanding home audience, athletes could deliver the performance of their careers or suffer a moment that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
"We know it (pressure) is there," said Robbie Dixon, who is bidding for a spot on the Canadian Alpine squad. "We all know what's up and we all deal with it differently."
Some Canadian Olympians have reacted to the pressure by simply pretending it is not there; others have confronted it. Some prepare by using visualization techniques or the help of sports psychologists.
Those who have been through the Olympic pressure cooker say that athletes will not know if they have chosen the right preparation methods until they push out of the start hut or hear the crack of the starter's gun.
For Canadian Alpine skier Kerrin Lee-Gartner the Olympics were the defining moment of her career, a lifetime of preparation compressed into one two-minute dash for glory.
Lee-Gartner never won a World Cup race nor stood on a world championship podium but at the 1992 Albertville Games in France she delivered when it mattered most, taking gold in the downhill.
As a little girl the Olympics is what I dreamed of," Lee-Gartner told Reuters. "I didn't dream about the World Cup or the crystal globes, it was the gold medal that caught my heart.
"I would never have had the ability to treat it as another race. The Olympics were always special in my mind.
"Everything was a building block. My advice to any athlete is be prepared to feel more than you think you will."
No athletes in Vancouver will be under more pressure than Canada's men's hockey team, and no player under greater scrutiny than Sidney Crosby.
For many residents of the hockey-mad Great White North the Olympics will not be a success unless it includes the men's hockey gold medal.
Hockey Canada, however, says it has no plans to bring in sports psychologists to help players deal with the immense expectations since many, including Crosby, will arrive at the Games battle-hardened from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"It's pretty hard to compare because I've never gone through it," said Crosby during the Pittsburgh Penguins recent visit to Vancouver when asked about the Olympics.
"I can imagine there is going to be pressure there but I like to think all the things I've gone through before will help me prepare for that. You've got to go out there and do the same things."
While pressure can push athletes to greatness, Team USA general manager Brian Burke, for one, is glad the crushing expectations are on Canada's hockey team and not his.
"The only pressure that I can see on the horizon right now is the pressure for the Canadian team which is massive and glacial and unrelenting," said Burke with a smile.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)