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Eric Lamaze: Canada's comeback kid

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Today the CBC Sports headline read, "Eric Lamaze takes home gold in Olympic individual show jumping." I watched the event on NBCOlympics.com, as the story of an athlete's comeback from drug problems raced to its heart-stopping conclusion. Lamaze and his horse Hickstead were locked in a timed jump-off with Sweden's Rolf-Goran Bengtsson and Ninja. The course was shortened, with tight turns and trappy combinations. The Swede and his horse ended the speed run with 4 faults. But Lamaze and Hickstead were having one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments -- clearing the fences with air to spare, taking the last one at a risky angle to shave off a micro-second of time. Afterwards Lamaze and his panting horse were the center of a backstage frenzy of applause and congratulations.

And no wonder. Eight years ago, a gloomy CBC Sports headline had read, "Equestrian rider Eric Lamaze accepts his fate." Lamaze had a long-standing problem with cocaine use and had just failed a drug test for the second time. He had already been barred from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for the first failed test. Now the Canadian Olympic Association had barred him from the 2000 Sydney Olympics as well.

Lamaze, then 32, had made this heartbroken statement: "I wish to apologize to all Canadians for the embarrassment and controversy that I have brought about. I promise that I will make it up to you so that I can proudly represent my country again as an equestrian rider....While I have had a very difficult past, I make no excuse, I am responsible for my own actions."

For the next eight years, Lamaze battled to get his personal life and sports career back on track. Last night, at age 40, the Canadian rider kept all the promises -- to his country, but most of all, to himself. Before the medal ceremony, his beaming face said it all as he commented, "When you give people chances and allow them to learn from their mistake, great things happen."

It was Lamaze's second medal at Beijing, the first being a silver in team jumping. Canada's only other equestrian gold in history came in team jumping in 1968 at Mexico City.

Lamaze also had praise for his four-legged partner Hickstead. He said, "You hope your horse comes up on the biggest day, and mine sure did. He's one of a kind." Hickstead is a 12-year-old Dutch-bred stallion who fought back last year from his own close call -- surgery for colic, a condition that can kill a horse.