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Gold medal winner Alex Bilodeau's brother, Frederic, and father, Serge, share a laugh during an interview with the Globe and Mail. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Gold medal winner Alex Bilodeau's brother, Frederic, and father, Serge, share a laugh during an interview with the Globe and Mail. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

FEATURE

The Bilodeaus: Elusive truths from an unforgettable family Add to ...

This article was published after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vacouver, B.C.

The night Alexandre Bilodeau won his gold medal, his sister, Béatrice, was beside herself as only a 16-year-old girl can be beside herself. One moment he was Béatrice's brother and the next he was Alexandre Bilodeau, winner of the gold medal for freestyle skiing, Canada's first on Canadian soil - glory of our glory, the first of our triumphs.

"He went on the media, and he was just gone," Béatrice remembers. She gave him a hug at the foot of the hill, but then he was swallowed by the adoring, proud masses.

Afterward, back alone in the hotel with her father, Serge, and mother, Sylvie, Béatrice did what she always does when she feels sad or bad: She talked to Frédéric, her eldest brother. He could always hear her.

Fred had been all over the TV himself, hugging his brother at the bottom of the hill - the brother with cerebral palsy who had launched himself out of his wheelchair, into his brother's arms and a nation's awareness. Alex was a hero. But Fred was where he always was at the end of the day - in his wheelchair.

"Well, why don't you come and sleep with me?" Fred said to his distraught sister. This is something families like theirs do: There, in bed, together, the differences between the disabled one and everyone else disappear.

"And so I came, and we slept together, and we talked and had a great moment, and I felt way better. Because of him."

Fred could do that.

POTENTIAL, UNLIMITED

By now everyone has heard Alex Bilodeau talk about Frédéric, has heard the Olympic champion explain how his broken brother inspires him and has heard him say at public gatherings or press conferences or on TV or in interviews, "Even though his abilities are getting lower, he's trying to improve every time. So where's my limit? If he's still skiing, where's my limit?" (Or words to that effect. Alex is almost as skilled at talking as he is on the mogul field.)

There has been so much coverage that one could be forgiven for thinking the media are exploiting Fred for the sake of an easily moving story. The family has noticed that. There are even people who say Fred's become a hero because these Olympics need some good news and Canada needs proof that it hasn't become a medal-grasping hard-ass. The family has noticed that too.

Fred disagrees. He likes being famous. His parents refused to wear TV microphones during Alex's race, but he wanted to and did. "Because of the performance of Alex," he said to me the other day in the lobby of his hotel, "I'm part of history." Fred loves history. His hero is Napoleon - "he created a new kind of liberty in Europe."

He has this way of pausing after he says something, and then adding another thought. "My brother is" - a long pause - "the Napoleon of Canada."

A radical thought: Fred says there's no need to apologize. For anything - not for winning, not for being Canadian, not for being disabled. It seems to be a popular message. So many people recognized Fred last Tuesday in downtown Vancouver that his father said, "You are almost as popular as Tom Cruise."

Fred looked up. "Who is Tom Cruise?"

SCATTERED BODIES

Fred has cerebral palsy, like 50,000 other Canadians. There are different strains, but the consequences are distressingly similar - damage to the brain, most often in utero; a subsequent inability to control or co-ordinate movement of the limbs, face, mouth, body. Incurable. Fred was fine until he was 2. Then he fell sick and couldn't move. He was admitted to hospital and stayed so long, his mother quit her job.

His feet point in one direction and his shins go another and his thighs go a third, even sitting in his wheelchair, while his trunk pokes off somewhere else again. When he speaks - low and slow and gutturally and with feeling, trying to form words that are clearly there in his head but that he can't seem to persuade his brain and mouth to say - he sometimes tries to push the air in front of him into big squares with his hands.

Unlike his physically brilliant brother, whose body has a gymnast's centred calm, Fred's torso seems to be permanently on the verge of scattering in all directions. It's not frightening, but it can be grave.

If a question is challenging, he makes the air squares bigger; if he is thoughtful, his voice is calmer. The most serious questions give him the least difficulty. Sometimes his father wipes his chin as he speaks. Mostly they laugh.

His parents met when they were 15. She was a figure skater training for the national team in Boucherville, Que. He was from Anjou, a good hockey player but too small to go pro. He thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

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