The way Derek Drouin sees it, there’s just something different about an Olympic medal.

After bringing home bronze in London four years ago, the decorated Canadian high jumper admitted he cherished that medal more than any other he owned – including the gold he won at last year’s world championship.

That world title helped launch him to the very top of his sport, but on Tuesday, Drouin stepped back onto high jump’s biggest stage in search of what he wants most – more Olympic hardware.

Drouin won gold in commanding fashion, tying his season-best jump by clearing 2.38 metres. Rival Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar claimed silver, clearing 2.36, while Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko took the bronze medal at 2.33.

It is Canada’s first gold medal in high jump since Duncan McNaughton won in 1932. Though Drouin was favoured to win a medal, he said the pressure of those expectations never got to him.

“The last couple of days, I have just kind of had realizations where I’m like, ‘I don’t feel nervous at all, I’m not anxious at all, I am so excited to get out there, because I was confident in my preparation,” Drouin said. “But also, I just love the Olympics, and I was really just taking the whole moment in and being so, so excited to be here.”

Heading into the finals, the 26-year-old Drouin was one of fewer than a dozen people in the world to have cleared 2.40 m in competition.

But it was his ability to deliver in the biggest competitions that often set Drouin apart: He won the world championship in Beijing last year with a 2.34 m jump, and took gold at last year’s Pan American Games in Toronto, clearing 2.37.

Before the meet, Drouin’s fiercest competition in Rio de Janeiro looked to be Qatar’s Barshim, the only jumper to reach higher than Drouin in competition this season. Drouin’s best this year was 2.38, compared with Barshim’s 2.40.

And when the competition got under way, it was a duel between those two men.

Barshim and Drouin were flawless early on, becoming the only jumpers in a field of 15 to clear the first five heights on their first attempt.

Barshim, with a personal best of 2.43, has the capacity for gravity-defying, bar-evading leaps. But Drouin, who hails from Corunna, Ont., and lives in Toronto, was equal to the early challenge.

With only three jumpers remaining at 2.38, including Bondarenko, Drouin made his first jump at that height, appearing unfazed by the tight competition. Then Barshim and Bondarenko both faltered on their initial attempts.

Sitting on the sidelines in a red Canada coat to stay warm, Drouin watched as the two competitors then missed their second bids, with the normally confident Barshim appearing to grow increasingly nervous as his chances ticked down.

After Bondarenko bowed out, Barshim’s final attempt at 2.38 was unsuccessful, catching the bar with his thigh and knocking it to the mat. When he landed, Barshim stood up, raised his arms in the air and did a backflip – partly in frustration but also because he has a reputation as one of the sport’s bigger showmen. He then blew a farewell kiss to his supporters in the crowd, acknowledging Drouin as the winner.

Drouin took a run at hitting the 2.40 mark, which would have been an Olympic record, but failed to clear it. At that point, he signalled he was finished and went to claim the gold medal.

Trying to compose himself for a run at the Olympic record was not easy after realizing he’d won the gold. “I had a flood of emotions and tried to get rid of it really quickly, but it didn’t work out the way I that wanted,” Drouin said. “It would have been an awesome moment, but obviously [I’m] still very happy.”

His coach Jeff Huntoon said afterward that Drouin was at his best in terms of composure.

“The kid’s a gamer, there’s no question about it,” Huntoon said. “When you don’t do it for money, this is what happens. You come to championships and you put out good performances. You may not win every time, but you’re going to be ready in a situation like this.”

Huntoon said he pushed Drouin to try for the Olympic record, even though he’d already won the gold. “I kind of egged him into jumping at that one,” Huntoon said. “I’m glad he gave it a shot.”

Drouin has always stood out in the sport, most notably for how he approaches the bar, where he runs from left to right, while most athletes come from the opposite direction. The somewhat unusual strategy originated from the way he learned the high jump as a boy, teaching himself to leap over a broomstick in his basement at home, where space was tight and there was no room to run from the right.

No one ever told him you couldn’t approach from the left, so he did.

Asked after the competition if people were celebrating back in Corunna, a small town just south of Lake Huron near the U.S. border, Drouin figured they were.

“I still hear stories from four years ago, so I’m sure that people are going pretty crazy,” he said.

After the competition, Barshim praised Drouin’s performance. “I always like to jump when it’s a strong field,” Barshim said. “Tonight we’re going to celebrate together, he [Drouin] is all good.”

Even before the Olympics, Drouin had become Canada’s best ever at the sport. While competing for Indiana University, Drouin became the only NCAA jumper to win five collegiate championships. Now, in addition to calling himself the world champion, he can add Olympic gold to his collection of medals – the one medal he’s wanted the most from the start.

“This is obviously something that I’ll cherish a lot more,” Drouin said. “I’ve grown up wanting to be an Olympian…. The Olympics are only every four years, there’s a reason why they’re so special.”

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 9:16PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 11:41PM EDT

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