Bumps, spins and spectacular wins

Alex Bilodeau has garnered every mogul medal achievable; now he’s going for something else: his CPA designation.

At age 12, Alexandre Bilodeau sometimes accompanied his father, a tax accountant, on visits to clients. At the time, he was a promising freestyle skier, still far from the double Olympic gold champion he would become. One day, he found himself waiting outside the office of Alain Lemaire, then president of Cascades, a large packaging and tissue manufacturer located in Kingsey Falls, Que. The executive spotted Alexandre and called him into his office. "So, you’re our consultant’s son who skis?"

Bilodeau was not only precocious on skis; his business acumen was already just as sharp. He also knew that Cascades already sponsored a number of young skiers across the province. "That’s right," he replied. "Listen, I’m not that far advanced in my career, but would you be ready to sponsor me?"

Gold winner Alex Bilodeau,right, and Mikäel Kingsbury, silver winner, on the podium in Sochi, Russia

"That depends on how much you charge," shot back Lemaire, with a twinkle in his eyes. "I had already taken my information about the young athlete," says the former president, now executive chairman of the board at Cascades.

"It won’t cost you anything," said Bilodeau. "I’ll stick your logo on my helmet for free. But when I start performing, just make sure you remember me." It was Bilodeau’s first sponsorship, which lasts to this day, 14 years later.

Podiums galore

Six years later, he stood on a World Cup podium for the first time, the first of 48; he earned a total of 19 World Cup gold medals and held the title of World Champion Dual Moguls in 2009, 2011 and 2013. And as is well known, he got the Olympic gold in his discipline in Vancouver and in Sochi. Arguably, his most memorable accomplishment was to be the first Canadian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal on Canadian soil.

At 26, Bilodeau is now committed to full-time studies in business and accounting at Concordia University in Montreal. He leaves the sport scene without regret. "I don’t think I could become a better skier, and I have other challenges ahead of me," he says.

Freestyle — or mogul — skiing is certainly one of the most spectacular of all sports. A hybrid of skiing and high diving, it combines short and extremely punishing sprints over a series of bumps — at least three bumps a second — with dizzyingly high acrobatic jumps combining backflips, double folds and triple spins. There is a major difference here with divers: "They don’t have heavy boots and dangling skis that add to the difficulty," says Michel Hamelin, Bilodeau’s technical coach. The skier must be fast in order to beat the chronometer, aerially acrobatic in a way to take away the judges’ breath and so precise that he doesn’t break a leg, a shoulder or his neck. Bilodeau has never been severely injured, something that is unprecedented in the sport. He had the occasional sprained ankle or sore shoulder, of course, but never an injury that incapacitated him or required surgery.

"What we see on TV doesn’t show the reality of it," says his father, Serge Bilodeau, FCPA, FCA, and senior associate at KPMG in Montreal. "On the spot, it seems impossible, almost inhuman, that someone can go so fast, be so agile and jump so high all together. It’s the kind of comment you hear from people all the time."

"It requires an incredible level of concentration and adaptation, because the runway is constantly changing," says Bilodeau’s oldest friend, Olivier Paul Saint-Germain, who is deputy manager of brand marketing at Molson Breweries in Montreal. "This is not a Formula One racing track. You’re not going down the same runway that you tested the day before. It’s always shifting and changing as the competition moves forward. But Alexandre is a metronome. He’s a machine. And if he’s never had any serious injury, it’s because he’s in tremendous physical shape; he’s always at the gym training. He makes sure all the odds are on his side."

Redefining the sport

Not only is Bilodeau the foremost athlete in his discipline, his commitment and drive have literally redefined the sport. Before him, former champion Jean-Luc Brassard had already transformed the discipline with a crisper technique, greater speed and minimalist, fluid movements, says Hamelin. Brassard was the record holder, well before Bilodeau mounted his first podium, skiing up to 10.5 metres per second. But today, Bilodeau finishes those slopes by skiing 11.5 metres per second. Not only is he faster, but his jumps are higher, sharper and more spectacular and he’s so rock stable. He seems not to ski but to glide over those bumps.

Bilodeau had to fight for everything he’s accomplished. "He’s a bulldozer," says Hamelin. "Each day he tries to push back the limits and that’s why he has constantly evolved. He always wants results and to touch the next level — yesterday! He’s impatient and relentless, and he doesn’t need anyone to get him going. He’s self-propelled. I even have to calm him down sometimes. He doesn’t need to be always so intense."

Alexandre Bilodeau celebrates with his brother, Frédéric, at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

The sports world has taught Bilodeau a few hard lessons along the way. One of his most trying moments happened at the Turin Olympics. "It was a reality check for me," says the athlete. Six months before the Games he was practically a nobody; "no one gave me any chance of winning," he says.

But a winning streak of gold medals on the international circuit suddenly catapulted him to the second spot in the list of gold contenders. "I did a perfect downhill sprint but a single landing error in the final jump cost me three points." He ended up in 11th position, an honourable performance but far from the medal he had started imagining he could win.

Crash landing

"He certainly had the potential to make it to the podium," says Hamelin, "but he pushed too hard and it caused him to make a fatal error." For Bilodeau, it was a crash landing. "Is that what the Olympics are?" he asked himself. "I’ll have to wait four years to get another chance, and if I muff it, that’s it? Will I be unlucky my whole career? Because you can be 75 times World Cup champion, [but] if you fail in the Olympics, you’re a nobody. That was a lesson."

And what did he learn? To grit his teeth and become grimly obstinate? Certainly not. He learned two much more valuable things: serenity and determination. "I promised myself to give it everything and then to have no regrets. And how do you avoid regrets? You do what you have to do. You don’t skip training one day just because you don’t feel like it. You don’t make excuses. That’s an attitude I now carry with me in everything I do."

Lessons dearly learned, but most precious. "If people had the same way of dealing with the world, the same attitude, the same discipline, they would accomplish a lot more," says Marie-Annick L’Allier, Bilodeau’s publicist and owner of a sports marketing firm. "After the political campaign in Quebec, I heard a minister who lost at the poll say he would take weeks to get over his defeat. You wouldn’t hear an athlete talk like that. Before the finals in Sochi, Alex was in sixth position. Had he thought that way, he was finished. He had to get back in line then and there."

Bilodeau’s final performance at Sochi is proof of the lesson learned. "I gave the performance of my life at a moment when I really needed it," he says. The impressive part is that conditions worked against the athletes. The weather was warm and the snow slushy. Yet, he arrived downhill "with an extraordinary feeling of accomplishment. I didn’t experience the slightest mental snag, I was totally in the present, a bit as [if] in a trance. When I made it to the finish line, I thought, Wow! What just happened here? You’ve been dreaming about this moment for four years and in 20 seconds, it’s behind you." No regrets.

Unlikely hero

His brother, Frédéric, has driven home the same lessons. "He’s my hero," Bilodeau says. Frédéric, 33, suffers from cerebral palsy and doesn’t fit the usual description of a hero. He had to stop skiing five years ago. "Frédéric has dreams, most of them inaccessible, but he makes the best of everything and takes on life without complaining. He’s a constant lesson and I feel that I owe it to him to try to be the very best I can."

The two brothers are very close and Frédéric was present at every Canadian competition and in Sochi. "He lives his dreams through Alex," says Bilodeau senior. "If you had seen his eyes at Sochi, he’s the one who was winning that medal. There’s a strong bond between them, and Alex thinks that if his brother doesn’t set limits for himself, why should he."

The champion is family and friend centred. Béatrice, Frédéric, his parents, his friend Saint-Germain and his girlfriend were with him in Sochi. "We had a warm and marvellous week in Sochi," says Saint-Germain.

This family orientation is something his parents instilled in him early. "Having a handicapped child made us think hard," says Bilodeau senior. "When Alex came of age, my wife, Sylvie, decided that we would all practise a family sport and it was non-negotiable. She decided on skiing, we would always be around the same table at night and good humour would prevail. Then Alex and Béa decided to go into competition and it knit the family even closer together since we had to follow them everywhere they went in Quebec, Canada and the world."

No victory lap

His ski performances brought Bilodeau many sponsors: Cascades, HBC, Audi, Nike and Sanofi are among the better known names. "He could very well earn his living from these sponsorships," says Hamelin. Because most gold medalists perform a "victory lap" that usually lasts a year, basking in the glory of winning and raking in sponsorships and money.

Not Bilodeau. Right after Sochi, he announced he was hanging up his skis to study accounting at Concordia. "The last weeks have been a liberation for me," he says. "Skiing is not my priority anymore. My horizons are opening up."

What accounting firm wouldn’t like to have an employee like Bilodeau in its ranks? That’s why the big ones have all courted him, according to his father. "He’ll finish his studies at a later age than I did, but he’ll be starting with a high level of experience and an amazing network. He has an incredible Rolodex."

Has he already chosen a specific path? "Many opportunities present themselves to me, but I want to prove myself. I try not to block any preconceived plans. Accounting is so vast, it’s a launch pad that can lead to so many things."

Whatever path Bilodeau follows, people around him don’t have the slightest doubt concerning him. "He’ll do in accounting the same as he did in skiing," predicts Hamelin. "He’ll be at the top in 10 years."