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An Olympic dream come true

An interview with Calgary Firefighter Duff Gibson, Olympic gold medallist

December 13, 2007
By James Haley

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11Perseverance pays off.  No longer a dream, Calgary Firefighter Duff Gibson is an Olympian. And he is a gold-medal Olympian, one of a select few Canadians who have had the honour of climbing the podium at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, hearing our national anthem being played for the world, and seeing our national flag raised high at this most prestigious of winter sporting events. This self-effacing but driven firefighter, who works at the Calgary Airport fire station, is also an Olympic record holder and an inspiration to Canadians of all ages. Some may call him and his fellow competitors crazy – they hurtle down the track at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour – but then again, firefighters do enter burning buildings when everyone else is rushing out.

PHOTO BY CORY HICKS
Proudly showing off his gold medal, Calgary Firefighter Duff Gibson sits in one of the crash trucks he operates at the firehall at the Calgary airport.

But he’s modest too. Gibson indeed apologized in an interview with Canadian Firefighter & EMS Quarterly, when asked about a record he now holds. “I’m actually the oldest gold medallist in an individual event in Winter Olympic history.”

He was born in Vaughan, Ont., in 1966 and Calgary is his hometown. Gibson has been a firefighter for six years. Being a firefighter wasn’t his childhood ambition – that was to be an Olympian – but after meeting several firefighters working out in the sports centre where he was employed, he decided it was the profession for him. He’s never looked back.

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The 220-lb., 6' 1" man is a member of the Alberta Skeleton Association and placed 10th in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Last season, he placed first on the technically challenging Turin track, prior to the Olympics. During the 2003-2004 season, he had a phenomenal year, finishing second overall in the World Cup standing and placing first at the World Championships.

He entered the sport of skeleton almost seven years ago after trying athletic careers competing in bobsleigh and speed skating. His goal has always been the big one – an Olympic medal – and his inspiration has always been his father and his uncle, both nationally ranked athletes.

At home, the City of Calgary Fire Department is extremely proud of Firefighter Gibson for his triumphant effort at the Olympic Games.

The day after his winning performance on Feb. 17, Fire Chief Bruce Burrell said, “On behalf of the Calgary Fire Department, I’d like to state that we are extremely proud of Duff Gibson’s achievement yesterday at the Olympic games.  Duff has demonstrated a tremendous commitment to his sport and to Canada with this gold medal. Everyone in the fire department has been cheering Duff on, and we are incredibly pleased with his performance and proud of him. We want to congratulate him and thank him for the positive recognition that he has brought to the Calgary Fire Department and the City of Calgary.”

Upon his return to Canadian soil, his colleagues at the airport greeted his plane with a parade of crash trucks, which escorted the aircraft into the terminal. It was a very emotional moment for him, as no doubt was the ride to the pinnacle of his athletic journey.

Just what is skeleton?
According to the Olympic rules, athletes in this sport use the same track as bobsleigh and luge. Face down is the position taken by athletes in the skeleton. Lying prone, face first, arms at their sides, the competitors race down the run at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour. The track must be at least 1,200 metres long, with the ascending lengths of the course measuring around 12 per cent of the total distance. After the finish line, the track climbs into an ascent to allow the athlete to stop. The combination of a straight and curving track creates a challenging course, notes the Turin Olympic website.

To move the sled, only the thrust force produced by the athlete and the force of gravity are permitted. In skeleton, steering is carried out by means of the athlete's bodily movements. The start is the same as in bobsleigh competitions. Once the green light flashes, the skeleton athlete has a maximum time of 30 seconds to start. After the thrust phase, which varies from 25 to 40 metres, the athlete leaps into position on the sled and starts the descent.

The interview
What has been your motivation and what led to skeleton?
Duff Gibson: I’ve basically been switching back and forth between different events for as long as I have been doing sports. Five or six years is the longest I’ve done a sport until I found skeleton. I kept switching because my ultimate goal was to get to the Olympics. I believe you have to love what you do; well, I love the training for it. And the goal of trying to get better and better. I’m sort of a jack of all trades I guess. Whenever I would switch (to a different) sport, I’d be reasonably good at it right away, but like anyone it would take you a few years to find out if you had some real, natural ability for it. I would give it a fair shake and then move on to the next thing because I figured I would have a better chance of making it to the Olympics if I switched sports and eventually I found the one that would work for me.

How long have you been in the sport of skeleton?
DG: I did it for seven seasons, so that would be six and a half years.

Is what you do, working out for skeleton, similar to your fire service training?
DG: I don’t know that it does compare, other than for a firefighter there is a physical aspect to the job and it helps to be fit. It helps to be strong. Besides that, there’s dealing with the stress. There’s that aspect of it (that is common to both). Certainly going into a fire is probably more life-threatening than going down a hill, but there is still definitely a point where you’re too nervous or over-stressed to do your best and that applies to going into a fire or standing at the top of a hill about to compete where they measure hundredths of a second. There is that aspect in common, but the training for the fire department? I just try to keep myself in shape like any firefighter would and certainly my skeleton training does that.

How does the job lend itself to being an athlete? In an interview in Turin after your gold-medal run, you said being on shift work helped and that your co-workers were also very co-operative.
DG: The simple fact that our shift work is four on four off – two days and two nights – leaves six days out of eight when I can go wherever I want and do whatever I need to in terms of training. The shift work lends itself very well to the time availability. Like many firefighters who have second jobs, it’s the same concept. Beyond that I would just say that the department in general is supportive of anyone who wants to be an athlete. Any kind of fitness the department is supportive of, and then it gets down to my individual colleagues at my hall who will work for me while I’m away. Honestly, that’s been the biggest support for me because I never have to search high and low looking for someone who will work a shift for me. They’re always very willing to help and they’re excited for me. I actually have one guy who worked two shifts for me and he refuses to let me pay him back! That’s how generous the guys are that I work with. That’s above and beyond. I said to him “it’s not that I can’t afford to pay you and it’s not like I was off doing charity work. I was pursuing my own goals and it’s not right that you should sacrifice to help me.” But he didn’t care. That was his way of contributing to my Olympic journey and he refuses to this day to let me work it back for him.

What was it like when you flew into Calgary and saw the crash trucks heralding your arrival back home?
DG: Well, that was awesome. That was so much fun. I kept thinking how much I would be ridiculed if I actually had tears in my eyes from something that the guys did. (Laughs). It was touching. There’s no other way of saying it. I felt like I really belonged to that brotherhood. And I felt like a firefighter and I felt like they were welcoming me back to Canada.

Did your colleagues do anytime special for you when you got back to work?
DG: After our second day-shift we’ve got 24 hours before we have to be back, so sometimes if there is someone getting married or someone retiring we’ll all get together; they had a little get-together like that for me.

You’ve announced your retirement. What are your plans for the future?
DG: My wife and I, we’re actually trying to have a family and it should be the major focus of my energies for the next 20 years, I guess (laughs). That’s the main one. Beyond that it’s hard to say at this point. People have very kindly been asking if I would be able to speak at their kid’s school and that sort of thing. I’m very busy with that and I’m very pleased to do it because I know this kind of attention and congratulations are going to happen but once in a lifetime, so I’m enjoying it as much as I can, while I still  can.

You can be an inspiration to young people about your experience, right?
DG: I hope so. When I was university – as opposed to being in elementary school – I had a picture (taken) of myself wearing Mark Tewkesbury’s silver medal from the Seoul Olympics (in swimming). I know how much that meant to me and how what I was feeling and thinking when I saw that medal and got to hold that medal. It’s absolutely no skin off my nose to provide that for someone else and maybe it will have the same effect.

What has been the impact on your spouse, training and being away competing?
DG: It’s definitely been a sacrifice being away for two or three months every winter. From the questions I get asked, I have the impression a lot of people think it’s very glamorous or it’s a vacation or it’s very exciting to be away. But really, the competitions are the only thing that is exciting about being away. If you don’t do your best at the competitions then there’s nothing fun about being away because there really isn’t any time to do any sightseeing. You’re not on a vacation. I can list all these countries that I’ve been to, but really all I’ve seen is the airport or the highway, the hotel room and a track – that’s about it. You’re with your teammates, your coach and your competitors, and you’re on the job the whole time. And you’d better be on the job the whole time because it’s not a vacation. (Otherwise) you’re wasting your time.

Both your father and your uncle were nationally ranked athletes. That’s obviously been a motivator for you.
DG: Yes, very definitely. My father was twice the Canadian judo champion for his class, heavyweight division, and my uncle went to the LA Olympics (Summer 1984) for rowing in the fours. Speaking of my dad (Andy Gibson), his competition days were done when I was still a baby so I never really knew him as an athlete but I knew him as a coach. He was a football coach and a teacher, and he was as you would expect a football coach to be – loud, yelling, a lot of negative reinforcement – and his team loved him and would run through a brick wall for him. Yet he was nothing like that with me. I wanted to do it because I loved it not because someone was yelling at me to do it. Dad inspired in me a passion for sports.

My uncle (Ted Gibson) for sure was an influence and I took up rowing partially because my uncle was a great rower, but my dad overall was easily the biggest influence with me. He passed away in December and if  I’m sad about (that) – I try not to think about it – I’m just sad that I couldn’t share (the gold medal) with him. We’re both enjoying it from different locations.

Did you have much contact with the other firefighter at the games, Dominique Maltais (of Montreal)?
DG: I had no idea there was another firefighter on the Canadian team. I have watched Dominique at the X Games and I had no idea she was a firefighter until I went and watched aerials one day (in Turin) and her event was done and my teammates and I walked in and she said, “which one of you is a firefighter?” That’s how I met her and found out that she was a firefighter also. (Later) we were together at the closing ceremonies. Of all the professions represented on the Canadian team, the fire service had two and we both came out with medals!

How long have you been a firefighter?
DG: I’m just finishing my sixth year. I’ve been at the airport firehall for about 2-1/2 years now. You have to be a first class firefighter to work here and I was (transferred here) then. It’s not one of the “cool” halls. We don’t get as many runs as some others, but heck, I get to drive million-and-a-half dollar rigs by myself and it’s a lot of fun, a lot of training. My radio skills are probably as good as any lieutenant’s are, because that’s what we have to do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to do that until we were senior.

What is the crew size on your apparatus?
DG: We run with one firefighter per (crash truck). We have a lieutenant and a captain at the hall and they are the second person in whatever rig they get into. So, it’s generally one and in a couple you’re carrying an officer.

Do you have a lot of runs?

DG: No, it’s about four a month, so that’s about one per shift per month, but we do get a significant number of medical calls.

How often do you train for the job?

DG: Pretty much every shift we train.  I like to go out every day-shift and go through my fire fighting skills. We have to train more because we don’t have the actual calls nearly as often (as other halls in Calgary).

Why did you choose this career?

DG: It was different for me than some people in that I didn’t dream of being a firefighter since I was a kid. I was a phys-ed grad working at a sports centre and a lot of firefighters worked out there and I came to know some of them. They were all really good guys and in talking with them, I got interested in it, asking questions and finding out about (fire fighting) and then did a ride-along. It was then I decided that was what I wanted to do.


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