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    Friday, February 6, 1998

    Tough sledding for LeBlanc

    By CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun
      NAGANO -- A little more than a year ago, Ken Leblanc, Olympic bobsledder, a former World Cup winner, king of the hill in one life; a two-time loser in another who had spent over a year in Ottawa's Regional Detention Centre, sat on his couch and stared blankly at his television.
     His mind turned it over, the thought that kept running through his mind like a draft from an open door.
     The door was to a part of his life, his athletic life, the life which saw him stand on top of the world in 1990 as part of Canada's World Cup champion four-man bobsleigh team, refused to be closed.
     How could it still be open?
     Here he sat, 30-odd pounds overweight, a knee ravaged by surgery, a body, which had been heavily muscled and powerful, a body capable of helping propel a heavy sled, now gone to seed. "The biggest sprint I made," he said the other day, "was to the fridge and the heaviest thing I lifted was a fish out of an (ice fishing hole) and into a frying pan."
     Shouldn't the door have swung closed against the weight of 11 months in jail after being accused of obstructing justice, of intimidating witnesses specifically, in connection with murder charges against his brother, Bryan?
     Leblanc was imprisoned just 12 days after returning from a fourth-place finish in the four-man bob in the Winter Games in Albertville, a stunningly quick fall from grace which grabbed newspaper headlines in Ottawa. It was his second hitch at the RDC, following a plea-bargained six months for a fight in which a guy was beaten up with a pool cue in the late '80s.
     "While I was in jail, I was bitter. Here I was, I had just finished fourth in the Olympics and I couldn't even make bail," said the 29-year-old.
     "Sport Canada yanked my funding. No 'innocent until proven guilty.' Everybody abandoned me."
     Eleven months later, he was released the day after his brother was found guilty of the murder of Joseph D'Angelo. Bryan was sentenced to jail until 2016.
     Shouldn't the door have slammed against the weight of a devastating knee injury he suffered playing rugby? Somehow the door creaked and groaned against that weight and that draft continued to remind him.
     He had saved up a little money and, as his eyes looked at the television without seeing, his mind kept coming back to it.
     "I had saved enough money that there was an option there," said Leblanc. "I could buy a Harley or go out to Calgary and try to get that part of my life back.
     "I tossed and turned for a month and half. I was set to go about life, but there was no closure. That part of my life hadn't been fulfilled."
     He loaded up his van with just about everything he owned and hit the Trans-Canada Highway, pulling off the road and into the Olympic Park where he used his money to buy a membership for the gym.
     "I did that, before I unloaded the van or even found out where I was going to stay. It didn't matter to me if I had to live in the van. I was going to get this done."
     Eleven months later, just last November, he helped power Canada to two gold medals at World Cup events. His return was complete, the obstacles overcome, or so it seemed.
     It's never been easy for Ken Leblanc.
     Growing up on the periphery of the Caldwell projects in west-end Ottawa, his life was a daily dose of intimidation and beatings.
     "Walking to school, if some guys didn't like your face, there'd be a fight. I couldn't duke it out with the best of them. I was kind of the victim the whole time. I wasn't preoccupied with crime or anything, I'd just duke it up all the time. I was a skinny kid who fought anybody every day, any time."
     He found satisfaction in sports, running track at Laurentian High School and representing Canada at the world junior championships. He got to know bobsled driver Chris Lori, who trained in Ottawa. An invitation was extended and Leblanc had become a bobsledder.
     After overcoming all his problems to make his triumphant return last fall, disaster struck again. There was some sprint testing, "running through the clock," as they put it, going on after the World Cup in Calgary.
     Brakeman Dave MacEachern was being tested.
     "Being the team guy that I am, I ran through the clocks so Dave wouldn't feel like he was being ostracized. I didn't have to run through the clocks, I just jumped in there so he wouldn't be running by himself, you know, for moral support."
     Leblanc hurt his hamstring, an injury which he blames on his five-year absence from the sport.
     "If you pull a Ferarri out of the garage after five years, there's going to be some leftover carbon in the engine," he said. "I thought most of my carbon had been blown out, but I guess nine months wasn't enough."
     The injury has just now healed. During that time, MacEachern established himself as the top brakeman for World Cup champ Pierre Lueders. He was named over Leblanc to push for Lueders here in Nagano in the two-man, a race in which there will be an excellent chance for gold.
     The irony isn't lost on Leblanc. He ran to help MacEachern and hurt himself. Now, because of that injury, Leblanc said he believes he lost the chance to push for Lueders.
     "There's no question in my mind that had I been healthy, I would be the best man, but, unfortunately, I didn't stay healthy," said Leblanc.
     "That's what sport is all about. It's disappointing. It's devastating. But I've been in sports long enough to know there's no point collapsing or stomping your feet. You'll spend more time being crazy than smiling.
     "I'm not stressing about it. I don't want to create waves that might throw the guys off their game plan."
     Leblanc could get a chance to push for Chris Lori in Canada II and will certainly, his health willing, will be on one of the four-man teams. "It's a tough situation, but I don't want to bad mouth anybody. Whatever happens, happens. I know it's a situation where I'm not going to be sitting on the sidelines. I don't know where or when, but I'm going to be sliding."
     Leblanc's return to the Olympics, while opening a door for him, has closed one for his brother.
     "It's doing good for him to see me back doing what I love to do, what I believe I was created to do. We were best friends. We still are. I was drawn into that because of my love and devotion to my brother. He blamed himself for my career being put on hold. He could have pleaded guilty, but I told him, 'I'll sit for a year if it saves you from wasting 25 years of your life.' Finding fulfillment in my life and seeing me be as happy as I can be has helped him get rid of his guilt.
     "This is my passion. The way I look at it, it's like my whole life has been one obstacle after another, one character builder after another. This is all part of the package. What's another hurdle? None are too high. I've got one foot back in the door and they're not going to keep me out. I will be back."