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    Thursday, February 5, 1998

    Bedard aching for return to form

    By JIM O'LEARY -- SLAM! Sports
     NAGANO -- Myriam Bedard descended into her darkest hour exactly one year ago. Panting, muscles aching, she crossed the finish line at the 1997 world championships of biathlon and, scanning the results board, saw 25 names above hers.
     In that moment, Canada's 1994 double gold medallist was revisited by three years of pain, the pain of a thyroid condition, of chronic fatigue syndrome, of food allergies, of childbirth. And now, alone at the finish line, her peers watching, there welled within Bedard a new ache. It was failure, self doubt, fear.
     She contemplated retirement at various times in the months that followed her stunning, double gold performance at the Lillehammer Olympics. But the urge was never so strong as it was that day. Twenty-sixth place. An also ran.
     "It was my worst time," she says now. "I came close to quitting several times (after 1994), but one year ago at the world championships was the hardest."
     On Monday, in the women's 15K event, Bedard, 29, will begin the defence of her Olympic titles. She won a bronze in 1992, two golds in 1996 and now, in her third Games, needs one more top-three finish to equal Gataen Boucher as the only Canadian to wear four Winter Olympic medals.
     She is the first to admit she is a much different athlete today. First, there is a three-year old child demanding attention. Food allergies have forced her to adopt a strict nutrition regimen. Battling illness in the months after Lillehammer dulled the veneer of invulnerability common to all champions. But perhaps the biggest difference, the one that awakens your senses like a crack from her rifle, is the absence of confidence as she previews the coming days.
     The best reason she gives for not quitting is that she made a promise to herself four years ago to stick around for these Games. To simply compete, after all her adversity, would be a personal triumph. Anything else, it seems, she'd regard as a bonus.
     Biathlon requires tremendous physical stamina, but strong muscles and lungs, the things you can build up in a gym, are not what defines champions. The top biathletes are those who stay rock-cold calm, ignoring the screaming in their muscles, the pounding in their heart, the burning in their lungs, as they cooly squeeze the trigger to blast away the bullseye of a distant target.
     Bedard has systematically re-stacked the physical building blocks that underlaid her past triumphs. She says her health, at last, is good. But recapturing that sense of calm, that glorious feeling of complete serenity in the midst of competition's frenzy -- well, Bedard must wait and see.
     Should that feeling return, the evidence will be seen in Bedard's shooting scores. She has never skiied as fast as her chief rivals, but has made up ground with her rifle.
     "The skiing part has always given me trouble," Bedard says. "In Lillehammer, I was one minute behind (the top skiers). But if I shoot well, I have a chance."
     Bedard's serch for calm has taken her into seclusion in Nagano. She will avoid the athlete's village and skip the opening ceremonies. In a private home, she can control her environment, and her allergies. She has her own bedroom and "my own bathtub." She sleeps 12 hours a day.
     It's not clear how her teammates regard this special treatment. Bedard is the Queen of their sport. They admire her accomplishments but there is no sense that she is part of their team. But maybe that is unimportant.
     As veteran Steve Cyr sums up: "For the past four years, since Myriam won two gold medals, when people ask me to explain biathlon, most of them already know that it's skiing and shooting, not swimming and running."
     Or, in other words, single handedly Bedard has elevated the image of her sport in Canada. For that, she has been granted special status in Nagano. It would be extremely bad form for a teammate to gripe.
     On the World Cup circuit this winter, Bedard has struggled. She failed to crack the top 50 in her first six events, before breaking through with a 15th-place finish in her last race. That placing has given her reason for optimism, albeit modest.
     "I can not say I have no chance," she says of her medal hopes. "If I stay in that shape, if my health remains good, on this type of course I have a chance."
     Asked if she will draw on her double triumph in Lillehammer for inspiration before Monday's race, Bedard smiles and shakes her head. She says she doesn't even have a tape of those races.
     "I don't live in the past," she says. "To look back at those tapes now would bring back to much emotion. I don't need that now. It gives me too much adrenalin and makes me nervous. Maybe when I'm 65, but now now."
     Instead or reliving the most exciting days of her life Bedard will continue her search for calm. If this is to be her last Olympics, she may not go out as champion, but that doesn't mean she can't go out like one.
     Jim O'Leary is Executive Producer of Canoe (