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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Sleep-deprived snowboarder basks in local hero status

     WHISTLER, B.C. (CP) -- Ross Rebagliati hadn't had a good night's sleep in eight days.
     But the unflappable snowboarding speedster drew strength from the cheers of thousands of supporters as they welcomed him home from the Nagano Olympics.
     Rebagliati, who nearly lost his gold medal when he tested positive for traces of marijuana after winning the giant slalom run last week, thanked residents of this upscale resort town Tuesday for their unflagging support.
     In the days of uncertainty following the drug test, Rebagliati said he sat in his room at the Olympic village reading faxes and letters from home.
     "Let's just say I haven't cried in 20 years. Thank you."
     Eyes shining with excitement, Rebagliati paced a stage and autographed little Canadian flags for fans as his team-mates on the Olympic snowboard team and local leaders praised him.
     "It's like a real change in your life now," said downhill skier Rob Boyd, whose World Cup race win here in 1989 filled the square with a similar crowd.
     Whistler Mayor Hugh O'Reilly read recent letters to Rebagliati from school children.
     "When some people were judging you," said one from a Grade 4 schoolgirl, "I believed in you."
     "I knew that," Rebagliati replied emotionally as his divorced parents, sister and grandmother watched.
     Afterward, Rebagliati said his heart was racing as he gazed into the crowd, estimated at more than 5,000.
     "All the lights were shining in their faces and I could see every face looking at me," he said. "It's a feeling I'll never be able to describe."
     With TV cameras from Canada and the United States covering the jammed village square, officials showered Rebagliati with gifts -- from a massive glass sculpture to a lifetime ski-lift pass to all nine resorts owned by Intrawest Corp., which operates the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
     Whistler, a tourist-dependent town of 8,500 that can swell to 40,000 in peak ski season, also named a park after him and the one of the resort's ski runs will carry the name Ross's Gold.
     The flag-waving crowd cheered every time his name was mentioned and whooped as huge TV screens replayed his medal-winning run. Many sang O Canada as a clip of the award ceremony was shown.
     Police said the crowd was well behaved. There wasn't a whiff of weed in the packed village square.
     O'Reilly, who acted as master of ceremonies, earlier asked the crowd to abstain from lighting up during the festivities.
     "This is Ross's moment -- that wouldn't do him any good," he said.
     Rebagliati, who went on to a private party Tuesday, plans to rest for a few days before returning to the snowboarding world tour, which resumes in Germany later this month.
     The 26-year-old won the first Olympic gold medal in snowboarding but lost it after the marijuana showed up. He said it was due to second-hand smoke and an appeal reinstated his medal.
     Rebagliati, an admitted pot smoker who said he had his final toke last April, said he would like to act as an anti-drug spokesman for youth.
     "I think kids need to look up to somebody who they want to role-model their lives after, and I can do that," he said Tuesday.
     "I think the kids need to know that even though they're free to make decisions, like I've said before, they have to realize the consequences. Sometimes the consequences are good and sometimes they're not good."
     The positive pot test created confusion for the International Olympic Committee. IOC medical commission boss Prince Alexandre de Methode said last week he considered marijuana an education problem, not a doping problem.
     On Tuesday, he said he now thinks athletes should be punished for using pot. But Rebagliati said he still believes de Methode supports him.
     "He was behind me from the beginning," he said. "I think that no matter what the rules are, they should be the same for all the sports. I think that's what he's referring to, not just some sports."