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Monday, September 25, 2000

Ex-Bomber is charting new course

 SYDNEY -- He still loves his football.

 In fact, when we caught up with him, the first thing he said was, "So my Blue Bombers got thrashed by Hamilton this week, eh?"

 At first it strikes you as pretty funny, because it's just not a conversation you expect to have Down Under. Around here, the Canadian Football League feels just like it is -- half a world away.

 Now you may not remember former Winnipeg Blue Bombers offensive guard Kai Bjorn. He might not be familiar to you, since he played in '97 and '98, two seasons when most Bomber fans covered their eyes or wore paper bags over their heads to the games.

 So, unfortunately, you might've missed him.

 But he played in the CFL for close to four seasons. Two in Ottawa and two more in Winnipeg before hitting the end of the road.

 He played on zero winning teams. He never went to a Grey Cup game without buying a ticket.

 But here he is, competing at the Olympics a few years after switching from a down-in-the-trenches Hog to a sassy Canadian sailor in the star class, which is kinda on par with Dick Butkus suddenly deciding to become first mate on a Carnival Cruise ship.

 Do they have raw meat with that champagne spritzer? Is the end zone on the port or starboard side?

 Football to sailing. Not many guys can claim that one.

 "You need a totally different mindset," said the 6-foot-5, 280-pound Bjorn. "In football, the play only lasts five seconds or whatever and you try to kill the other guy. But when you're sailing, one play can last an hour-and-a-half out there, and it's a different kind of strain. It's a mental test."

 Things do get smashmouth in sailing sometimes, but not that often because crashing your 6.9-metre boat would cost a fair bit of change.

 PRESERVATION

 The boats are a little more valuable than, say, your teeth. So the sailors try to preserve them by not running into their opponents.

 And, providing the 32-year-old Montrealer and his partner Ross MacDonald (a 35-year-old Vancouver native who won a bronze medal at the Barcelona Games in 1992) don't run into anybody, it could make for a positive Canadian finish at these Sydney Games.

 The pair is ranked second in the world in the star class and they remain a legitimate medal shot for a country with not many left.

 "What an awesome experience this is, to be here in the village and to go out to the course at Sydney Harbour -- it's a pretty good deal," said Bjorn, a Games rookie. "We're just going out every day and taking care of business. I feel fortunate to be here, and I don't feel any pressure at all."

 Bjorn grew up around sailing. His family owns a company called Performance Small Craft, which manufactures sailboats.

 Bjorn's father sailed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He finished ninth. Kai, of course, would like to finish higher.

 It's a grind. They've just started racing today for the first of four straight days.

 You pretty much have to be consistent and finish near the top each day to have a shot.

 It's a long haul, and there'll be times Bjorn will wish he was back at Winnipeg Stadium instead of cruising along Sydney Harbour worrying about wind conditions.

 It's his nature.

 "Football's still my favourite," he laughed, "but with sailing, you get a long career out of it. That's one of the reasons I love it.

 "You can keep going competitively until you're in your 40s, even 50s. It's not like in football."

 After all, Bjorn notes, there are only so many Bob Camerons out there.

 The rest have to set sail on a new path.

 And for a lucky few like Bjorn, the results are positively Olympian.