What a klutz.
Her parents made her wear a helmet just to toboggan. The other night in the mountains, she “threw” her arm casually over her head, crashed into a lampshade and it fell and cut her for two stitches on the bridge of her nose.
And then she went out and won a gold medal in women’s slopestyle skiing – executing a never-before-seen move while flying through the air during a nearly perfect run.
“I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet,” she said Wednesday as she came down from the mountains to meet an international media that instantly knows everything there is about this 19-year-old phenomenon – except where Dara Howell comes from and what it will mean to the people who believed in her.
She is a smalltown hero, and smalltowns need their heroes more than ever in a country that is transfixed on the urban centres where the vast majority of people now live.
Dara Howell comes from Huntsville, a little town in Central Ontario that sits on the western edge of Algonquin Park and was once a lumber town and is now a resort community.
Like any small town, Huntsville has long had a sports rivalry bordering hatred with the other small towns – Parry Sound, Bracebridge, Gravenhurst -- that dot this rugged section of the Canadian Shield.
When civic pride means sports pride, it tends to burst.
“Parry Sound may have Bobby Orr,” one Huntsville native Tweeted late Tuesday, “but Huntsville has @DaraHowell.”
“I think when I go home and I get to share this moment with everyone,” the new smalltown hero said Wednesday, “that’s when it’s going to hit me how truly amazing Huntsville is. They’ve supported me from the beginning. I don’t think they expected a gold medal out of me, and just taking it home is going to mean so much.
“This medal is for so many people.”
It already is. Megan Jordan was teaching Wednesday at little Irwin Public School when the whole school was sent to gym to watch a giant screen presentation of the medal ceremonies.
Little kids are quick to cheer, but this time the screeches and shouting had something extra to it.
“I realized that this is their home town,” says Jordan. “And now they can dream from here.”
Little Huntsville has never had a gold medal to lay claim to. It has a deep sports history – members in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, provincial champions in hockey, lacrosse and fastball, swimmers, skaters, curlers skiers who have all excelled – but never an Olympic victory to draw the sort of attention Dara Howell is bringing.
There was Hattie Briggs, of course, silver medalist in speed-skating at the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Games and a formidable golfer and curler right up until her death. And retired high school vice-principal Jack McKenzie and the late Bill Colvin, a lawyer, took bronze in men’s hockey with the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, back in 1956. Both men, however, were latecomers to town, as was Briggs.
Howell was born there and, as any smalltowner knows, that counts more – for reasons no one has ever fully understood.
There have been other Olympics connections. Dan Roycroft from the nearby village of Port Sydney – “Home of 800 Families & 1 Old Grouch,” reads the sign heading in – competed in cross-country skiing in Turin in 2006. And swimmer Jenna Gredsal, born in Terrace Bay, competed at the Sydney Games in 2000.
The most astonishing Olympics connection, however, has to go to Bob Hutcheson, who has been involved in both Winter and Summer Games. Hutcheson volunteered at the starting gate for the downhill race at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. And each Summer Games, his gravel pit supplies the sand used in beach volleyball. Even the sand they played on at world-famous Bondi Beach in Sydney came from little old Huntsville.
The last time Huntsville had such attention was during the 2010 G8 Summit at Deerhurst Resort – right across the bay, coincidentally, from where the Howell family owns Pow Wow Point Lodge on Peninsula Lake – that turned the town into an armed encampment despite only a single protester showing up: a little boy holding up a sign demanding more “cookies.”
The country paid lots of attention then and even for a while after, thanks to local MP Tony Clement and the $50-million legacy fund that still has locals chuckling about finally, for once, getting the last laugh on Toronto, which ended up with all the real protesters when they changed the G8 to a G20.
No, there has never been anything quite like this in town.
They even opened up the members’ lounge at Hidden Valley, where she learned to ski at 18 months, and grandparents from both sides joined the crowd to watch and cheer her on in the middle of the night (parents Doug and Dee and grandmother Jacquie Howell came to Sochi to see it live).
Even Tony Clement drove over through the park from Ottawa, first picking up a student cousin of Dara’s who had no ride of his own.
Both her grandfathers were there, Ken Raven who still skis at the same hill she learned on in his late 80s, and Jack Howell, who stayed up with the cheering crowd until she made her runs around 4:00 a.m. and who sat down at 5:30 a.m. and sent out an email to family and friends, saying, “I’ve had a little Grand Marnier on the rocks, will flip on the TV for a bit, then try and catch a couple of hours shut eye.
“From a very proud Papa.”
Who lives in a very, very proud town.