Gaetan Boucher became Canadian Olympic hero before Own The Podium

PHOTO: Calgary Herald
Gaetan Boucher won two golds and a bronze in the 1984 Sarajevo Games.

Rosemere, Que. – There are stretches on Chemin de la Grande-Côte, a two-lane suburban road lined by trees and quaint low-rise storefronts, where the speed limit drops to only 30 kilometres an hour.

“And they’re tough on it,” said the soft-spoken man behind the desk.

The man lived nearby, in Rosemere, Que., a half-hour’s drive north of Montreal, and said that he used to drive quickly, but not as much anymore.

“I used to not get tickets,” he said with a wry smile. “They used to stop me and say, ‘oh, it’s you — well, be careful.’ But they don’t do that anymore.”

He chuckled.

Gaetan Boucher became a hero across Canada precisely because of the speed with which he moved. It was 30 years ago next month that Boucher, then a confident 25-year-old on a shoestring budget, won three of the four Canadian medals at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

On an outdoor speedskating track, where the lane markers were made of snow and where spectators watched from raised mounds around the oval, Boucher won two gold medals and a bronze. (Brian Orser won the country’s only other medal that year, with a silver in figure skating.)

Sponsors queued to sign him when he returned. The Montreal Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques fought over whether Boucher should drop the ceremonial puck first at a game in Quebec City, or in Montreal. Quebec premier René Levesque had bragged, at one point during the Games: “Quebec 3, Canada 0.”

Speedskating legend Gaetan Boucher at an arena in Rosemere, Que., near Montreal October 23, 2013.

PHOTO: Graham Hughes for Postmedia
Speedskating legend Gaetan Boucher at an arena in Rosemere, Que., near Montreal October 23, 2013.

Now, at 55, Boucher was sitting behind a desk in a small office, having turned off a radio when a guest arrived to chat. He is the general manager of an arena complex — a not-for-profit with two sheets of ice, an indoor soccer facility, a restaurant, a pro shop and up to 15 employees — and he is content in the peace and quiet.

With the radio off in the middle of a weekday, the hum of the ventilation system was his only companion. The ice was clear, and the lights in the hallway were dimmed. Boucher fielded a few phone calls, with images from security cameras shown on a screen nearby.

Only hints of his past were on display; a photo of him skating at a world championship, with that familiar menacing glare, a pair of hockey skates tucked under a cabinet. He does not make many public appearances anymore.

“I refuse just about every request,” he said. “I have my life here and my family, my friends, and I’m satisfied. Not being so visible all the time, you slowly fade.”

Boucher became a star in an era before high-performance sports was a term commonly associated with amateur athletics in Canada. For a while, he said he survived on a $320 monthly stipend from Sport Canada — it moved to $850 a month later in his career, but even then, he needed his agent to vouch for him at the bank so he could get a mortgage for his house — and had to pay out of pocket for his own skates.

He was the first Canadian man to win two gold medals at the same Winter Games. And he did it despite the fact he had broken his ankle the previous March, and had only resumed full training that October, months before the Olympics began. Boucher was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as the top Canadian athlete in 1984.

“It was incredible,” he said. “I didn’t know how strong the visibility would be after the Olympics. A lot of things happened.”

He and his German-born wife, Karin, have raised four children. Their eldest, Jean-François, was a forward on the Yale University hockey team, and he is still playing professionally in Germany.

Boucher is also still affiliated with his sport. He will be in Sochi as an analyst with Radio Canada, continuing his streak of attending every Winter Games since his retirement from competition, after the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

He won four Olympic medals, in all — he won silver in Lake Placid, in 1980 — and has been inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. But there have also been some strange omissions. Boucher is not a member of Canada’s Walk of Fame, for example, and he was also not invited to be part of the Opening Ceremony at the Vancouver Olympics.

Canada's Gaetan Boucher (centre) celebrates after winning the gold medal in a speed skating event at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

Canada’s Gaetan Boucher (centre) celebrates after winning the gold medal in a speed skating event at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

Boucher said he only started wondering about the Vancouver Games when those around him asked him whether he was going to play a role in lighting the Olympic flame. Only then did he start thinking, and wondering, waiting: “And then I was disappointed.”

He golfs, and he rides his bicycle. He is still soft-spoken and friendly. And, not far under the surface, he still has the same intensity seen in the picture hanging on the wall, with his dark eyes focused on the ice ahead, burning.

During a visit in October, Boucher said he had not been on skates yet that year. Part of it, he seemed to suggest, was because of his old competitive nature, even in hockey skates, and even during public skating events at his arena.

“I do intervals,” he said. “I look at my watch. I skate for three minutes pretty fast, then take a minute break, and then skate again. It’s . . . not fun.”

He laughed.

“I’m not doing this to be competitive, so why can’t I just skate slower and talk to people,” he said with a smile. “I can’t do it.”

Does anyone try to keep up with him?

“No,” he said.

Could they keep up with him?

“They could try,” he said, pausing a beat, “but probably not.”

National Post

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Gaetan Boucher won two golds and a bronze in the 1984 Sarajevo Games. Uses size
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