Olympic Champion commits herself to helping girls in developing countries to follow their dreams – “Because I Am A Girl”

Jennifer Heil loves to ski and compete with abandon.

Canadians know her best for winning her Gold and Silver Olympic medals in the 2006 and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. What many of us don’t know is that Jennifer Heil had much more that a winning record in the myriad events between Olympic Games – she absolutely dominated, winning 58 medals (25 Gold) in 9 World Cup Seasons.

In addition to her Olympic success, Jenn is a five-time World Cup Champion and a four-time World Champion. Now retired from competitive skiing – Jennifer is completing her studies at McGill University. She is also devoting her formidable energy to raising $1,000,000 for her Because I Am A Girl campaign to assist the work of Plan Canada in Africa and other Third World developing nations.

It all started in Edmonton, when Jennifer Heil was 9 years old. “We were an active family, and my Dad had us skiing almost as soon as we could walk. I think his goal was to have me ski a double black diamond run by the time I was four! I remember sitting on the couch with my mom and watching the Olympics when I was 9. I have images of Olympic athletes and being captured by their bodies soaring through space – and seeing their intensity.
I decided right then that I wanted to be an Olympic athlete.”

Continuing, Jennifer adds; “Now I had to find a sport. Even though I liked to swim – I knew that I was too short for that sport. When I saw Lean-Luc Brassard win the Gold at Lillehammer, I knew that I too could do this.”

Jennifer and her sister Amie were avid skiers, even though Edmonton was far from the nearest ski runs. “The family would leave Friday evenings and drive 4 hours to a ski centre, and drive 4 hours back on Sunday afternoons after skiing Saturday and Sunday. Amie and I would do our homework and sleep in the back seat on the way home.”

Jennifer made the Alberta provincial team at age 14, and she went to visit Mr. Geirhart, her school Principal. “I told him that I wanted to compete in the Salt Lake City Olympics in four years, and that to do that I was going to need a vigorous training schedule and travel to competitions. To accomplish this – I’d need some flexibility in my schooling. Mr. Geirhart was very enthusiastic and supportive, and we arranged for some courses to be taking online, some with books and course outlines that I’d take with me.”

Jennifer worked her way up the rankings for competitive Freestyle Skiing, and made it to the National Ski Team at 18 – just in time for the Salt Lake City Olympics. The youngest member of Canada’s Olympic Team, Jennifer Heil stood in the starting gate for the Women’s Freestyle competition four years after her visit to the Principal’s office.

“I did my best and just went for it. With just one racer left to come down the course – I was in third place. She came down the course… and I was bumped to fourth place by just 1/100th of point. They don’t give medals for fourth…”

The margins between first, second and third (and that ignominious fourth place) are very small. “Up until then I was skiing on enthusiasm. I came fourth on guts and enthusiasm. I made a decision to put together a team to help me to train and develop my body and my mind so that I could close those point and time gaps for the Turin Olympics.”

Jennifer put together a team, each expert in their field. They included: Scott Livingstone for strength and conditioning; osteopath Dave Campbell, Leslie Larson for deep tissue massage, physiologist Paulo Saldanha; sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell; Dominick Gauthier advised on technical ski conditioning and the overall strategic plan; along with JD Miller who acted as key mentor. “In addition to my sponsors, several business leaders made personal donations so that I could financially support my team. This gave me the resources to train without compromise.”

Four years later, with years of training, practice, solid nutrition and a wealth of advice and support from her team – Jennifer Heil is standing at the top of the hill in Turin, Italy. She’s the last skier. She has been racing on the World Cup circuit, gaining experience and most importantly…winning.

“This time I have a list of ‘I knows’ in my pocket. Literally, I wrote them down and slipped the paper into my pocket. I know I’m the fastest. I know I’m the strongest. I know that this is my moment.”

The starter intones; “Racer ready – three, two, one – Go!” In less than 30 seconds, Jennifer Heil will know if she will know if her efforts and the work of her team will pay off. But on the course – she’s not thinking of that. She’s doing what she knows best – just letting go and skiing to win. As she takes the jump, her world goes silent as she turns her body through the acrobatics she’s done a thousand times. Crossing the finish line Jennifer knows that she’s had a good race. But there is that point component to remember. “Please – just not fourth”, she says to herself. The announcement comes over the PA system… “From Canada – Jennifer Heil – FIRST!” Jennifer relives that moment; “I looked up at the Jumbotron, looked away, looked back – and it was still there!” Jennifer Heil – the best in the world – Olympic Gold!

Jennifer took a year off competitive skiing after the Torino Olympics to rest, recuperate… and to establish an organization called B2ten, whose purpose would be to set up funding to expand the training and support model that she had established for her self – so that other athletes could “train without compromise”. “After finishing fourth, I was able to win a Gold Medal just four years later because of the support of the community. With B2ten, we provide a businesslike approach, and an operation that is purposeful, innovative and accountable. We’ve also expanded to include summer Olympic athletes. In Vancouver we supported 18 athletes, 12 of whom won Olympic Medals.”

After establishing B2ten, Jennifer intensified her training and returned to the competitive skiing circuit; in preparation for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “I’d never felt pressure like I did for the 2010 Olympics. I had to manage expectations.”

Jennifer Heil from Canada! “I was in the starting gate – and when they announced my name I could hear the roar from the crowd at the finish line roll up the mountain. I was fighting for Gold, but I won Silver.” Jennifer had won the first medal for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. At the medal presentation that evening, Jennifer was overwhelmed by the applause and outpouring of affection from 40,000 people.

“I was so proud to be Canadian at that moment.”

Jennifer retired from competitive skiing after the Vancouver Olympics to concentrate on completing her degree at McGill University and graduate in 2013. She jokes that at 10 years, hers may be the longest running undergraduate degree program in the university’s history.

“I have received so much support in my reaching my dreams that I decided to see what I could do to give back. I’ve learned how important community strength can be to support people as individuals.”

Jennifer accepted an offer from Plan Canada to visit Burkina-Faso in West Africa – to see first-hand the work being done by Plan Canada to help girls claim a brighter future in the developing World. “Those girls are already making a significant achievement by just going to school. They were somewhat shy and very polite when I spoke to them. But when I asked them to tell me about their dreams – their hands shot up! They wanted to be doctors, lawyers and one even said that she would like to be President.” Jennifer committed to support Plan Canada’s “Because I Am A Girl” campaign with her own challenge of raising $1,000,000 to help girls in developing countries to realize their dreams. She personally donated $25,000 and several of her sponsors have matched her donation. The campaign is well under way; “We’ve raised over half so far.”

Jennifer Heil from Spruce Grove Alberta has chosen to live in Montreal. Initially she came because this is where the freestyle team was based. “Now – Montreal is home” she asserts as our interview draws to a close. I made a promise to Jennifer that I would ask our readers to be generous in their support of Because I Am A Girl campaign under the auspices of Plan Canada.

Remember the pride that Jennifer Heil instilled in us – bringing us to our feet with the first medal in Vancouver and how she has paved the way from other Olympic athletes to benefit from private and sustained funding by sharing her B2ten model. Now she is asking us to help her make a difference in the lives of young girls in developing countries. They each have dream – they just need a little help from us to make that dream a reality.

Please visit the website: www.becauseiamagirl.ca and click on donate to see how you can contribute. You can organize fundraisers or make your own contribution. There are many ways to contribute. Thank you… and thank you Jennifer. You continue to make us proud.