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Derek Drouin gives Canada its first Olympic high jump medal since 1976

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

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Canada's Derek Drouin celebrates bronze in the men's high jump finals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

LONDON -- They stood side by side, the Olympic medallists in the men's high jump, holding the flags of their nations. There was Russia's Ivan Ukhov, who won gold. There was the United States' Erik Kynard, who won silver. There was Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim, who won bronze.

But wait. There were more. Here came Canada's Derek Drouin, and here came Great Britain's Robert Grabarz. They had won bronze, too. It was a strange, happy sight -- five winners, thanks to a three-way tie for third, taking a victory lap with their capes flapping behind them.

And it wasn't until that moment that something dawned on Drouin, a 22-year-old from Corunna, Ont., in southwestern Ontario, a mild-mannered U.S. college kid who had never competed in a meet like this and had to overcome a career-threatening foot injury just to get here.

"I didn't notice how big the stadium actually was until I was doing my victory lap," Drouin said Tuesday night. "I do a pretty good job of zoning everything out, and that was lucky."

Oh, there was luck involved.

                                            [ Photos: Derek Drouin wins bronze ]

A three-way tie isn't unprecedented in the high jump, but it's rare. It hadn't happened since 1992, when three men tied for the final spot on the podium in Barcelona.

Ukhov cleared 2.38 metres, Kynard 2.33. The next six men cleared 2.29 -- including another Canadian, Michael Mason of New Westminster, B.C. -- so it came down to the tiebreaker. Each man gets three chances to clear each height. Barshim, Drouin and Grabarz didn't miss a jump before attempting 2.33; the others each missed at least one.

This was also the lowest bar for bronze since the 1976 Montreal Olympics. From Moscow to Los Angeles to Seoul to Barcelona to Atlanta to Sydney to Athens to Beijing, you had to clear at least 2.31 to receive a medal.

Drouin has cleared 2.31 at the Big Ten championships for Indiana and at the Canadian Olympic trials. He has cleared 2.33 at an indoor meet. He has cleared 2.37 in practice. He didn't do any of that here, cleared the same height as five other guys and still won bronze.

So what? Canada will take it. Drouin gave his country its first medal in the men's high jump since Greg Joy won silver in front of a hometown crowd in 1976, and he gave his country its first track and field medal at these Games.

"It's great. We need the medals badly," said Les Gramantik, coach of Canada's senior national program. "Manufacture a couple medals overnight. Maybe photocopy them or something like that."

Just know that it wasn't that easy, and if Drouin is lucky, it's that he also has talent and temperament.

Ask his coach if he expected a medal, and he waffles at first.

"Uh … expect's a funny word," said Joel Skinner, who has coached Drouin since Grade 10 in Sarnia. "I believed in his abilities, that's for sure. I think after seeing him after the last little while, I would say I don't like to use the word expect, but I'm not surprised at all as to how he finished."

Skinner laughed.

"So yeah," he concluded, "I expected this."

But ask Drouin himself, and he doesn't laugh.

"I thought that a medal was a pretty realistic goal," Drouin said. "A bronze probably was the most expected. I believed I was capable of that."

Why not?

                                      [ Video: See Drouin's bronze medal performance ]

Drouin was a three-time NCAA champion. In March 2011, shortly after he set his personal best of 2.33 metres, he suffered a Lisfranc injury, tearing three ligaments in his right foot -- his takeoff foot.

"The doctor did say it could become a career-ending injury," Skinner said.

But apparently Drouin didn't hear it quite like that.

"He knew that my goal was to make it to the Olympics the next year," Drouin said. "He kept asking when the trials were and made it very clear that if I qualified it was going to be very, very tight. The rehab was extensive. It was very long. Basically, at that point, my goal was just to make it to the Olympics, just get through the season and get here."

Drouin didn't return until April 2012. Skinner said when Drouin started jumping, he somehow didn't think about his foot. He cleared 2.15 at his first meet.

"This is just the way he is," Skinner said. "Most people, whether they were going to get healthy or not, would just be afraid to get off the ground. He only went up from there."

Drouin cleared 2.31 at the Canadian Olympic trials in June. Though his biggest international experience was the world junior championships in 2007, Drouin was not intimidated by the Olympics. He had jumped in the Penn Relays a couple of times when Usain Bolt drew huge crowds. No big deal. He even said this felt like an NCAA meet because his college coach was down low and he didn't have to look up at him.

"He's a rare one," Skinner said. "He doesn't get rattled by too much. He has great focus. He just thinks of everything as just another track meet -- in front of 80,000 people."

Why couldn't Drouin go higher here? Well, consider this. It was the Olympics, there was a lot of pressure and it was a cool, rainy night. The officials raised the bar from 2.29 all the way to 2.33 -- four centimetres, when it's usually three, in a sport where every centimetre matters.

The pressure didn't bother him. The weather didn't bother him. Only two men went higher than he did.

"Take advantage of the fact people aren't going to perform on the day," Skinner said. "You did, and you deserve to take a medal from that."

                                 [ Related: Simon Whitfield crashes out in men's triathlon ]

Drouin is a smart, well-spoken kid. He loves track and field and statistics. He knew immediately when he had clinched bronze, so he went over to the stands, where his parents were sitting in a low row. He gave them a hug, and they have him a Canadian flag, covered with signatures and well wishes collected at a fundraiser in Corunna a couple months ago.

"Good luck!"

"Have fun!"

"Dream big!"

"Go Canada go!"

He carried the flag around Olympic Stadium, spotting Canadians in the crowd, seeing people he didn't know cheering for him, finally grasping just what a big deal this really was.

"The stadium," he said, "is enormous."

This is only the beginning. High jumpers can keep going into their 30s, which means Drouin has more years and more opportunities in front of him. He expects to jump higher more consistently in the future. He knows how to dream big.

Skinner remembers sending him a text message, saying they would high jump in London and then do the decathlon four years later in Rio de Janeiro. Douin is a good hurdler. He can throw the javelin. But it was just a joke.

"And he -- dead serious -- said, 'Sure,' " Skinner said.

Why not?

More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Canada Sports:
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