VANCOUVER - In just over a year the flame will be lit for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Canadian athletes will begin their quest to win more medals than any other country at the Games.

For some competitors it will be their final Olympics. For others, it will be the cornerstone of their career. For all, competing on home soil will be the thrill of a lifetime.

It's enough to keep an athlete awake at night, a goal that needs to be nurtured and managed.

"I can't wait," says cross-country skier Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., a bronze medallist in a Tour de Ski race in Oberhof, Germany earlier this season. "I need to break it into manageable chunks. You need to make those small steps and small adjustments every week on your way.

"It's like climbing stairs. It would be sweet to jump to the top step, but you have to walk up all the stairs before you get to the top."

Snowboarder Matthew Morison of Burketon, Ont., who is still trying to qualify for the Olympic team, says thinking too far ahead can be a distraction from the task at hand.

"It's always on my mind," says Morison, who has won a world championship and World Cup silver medal this season in parallel giant slalom. "It's something I think about way too much."

Huge expectations will be heaped on the shoulders of Canadians competing at the Feb. 12-28 Games, which will be held in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

There will be pressure on Sidney Crosby to lead the men's hockey team to a gold medal. Many will wonder if long-track speedskater Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg can match the five Olympic medals she won at the 2006 Turin Games after taking the year off to recover from knee surgery. The alpine ski team will be looking for its first Olympic medal since 1994.

The bump-and-fly sport of ski cross, making its debut at the Vancouver Games, will hope to catch the imagination of television audiences like snowboard cross did in Turin. Canadians will be looking for another surprise hero like Chandra Crawford of Canmore, Alta., who won an unexpected gold medal in the cross-country sprint at the 2006 Games.

Plenty of money has been poured into winter sports programs since Vancouver was awarded the Olympics in July 2003. Own the Podium, a $120-million, five-year program of corporate and government funding, was specifically designed to help Canada win more medals than any other country in 2010.

But after several seasons of climbing to new peaks, Canadian athletes seem to have reached a plateau.

So far this winter, Canada's medal count from World Cup events is lagging behind last year's total. As of Feb. 1, Canadians had won 96

medals (26 gold, 33 silver and 37 bronze). At the same time last year Canada had claimed 173 medals and in the 2006-07 season 118.

Canada's strength remains in speedskating. As of Feb. 1, the long-track team had won 29 medals (11-10-8), followed by the short-track skaters with 26 (4-10-12). The freestyle skiers, competing over the weekend in a World Cup event on the Olympic course at Cypress Mountain, had won 11 medals (2-4-5) and snowboard team eight (1-3-4).

For Chris Rudge, chief executive officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee, watching the medal tallies can be like playing the stock market. There are highs and lows and some factors are completely out of your control.

"There are always things you think about that might require some tweaking," says Rudge. "It's certainly not within our mandate to interfere with the sport development programs of the various federations."

Rudge remains confident Canadians will claim their share of hardware at the Vancouver Games and lose the title of the only host country not to win a gold medal. No Canadian reached the top of the podium in Montreal in 1976 or Calgary in '88.

"I can state unequivocally, and give you an absolute guarantee, that we're going to have a number of gold medals in Vancouver," he says.

Roger Jackson, Own the Podium's chief executive officer, says Canada remains second only to Germany in World Cup medals. The Germans have won more medals in the sliding sports than in the past, while remaining strong in biathlon, nordic combined and speedskating.

Rudge says several factors have contributed to Canada's drop in medals.

Some of Canada's top medal earners are hurt or coming off injuries. Besides Klassen, long-track speedskaters Mike Ireland of Winnipeg and Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., are injured. A nagging foot injury has kept Crawford from competing and alpine skier Jan Hudec has just returned after missing more than a year with a knee injury.

Scheduling is another factor. The freestyle skiers and snowboarders are just entering the meat of their season. Several women's alpine races have been cancelled.

The medals are also being spread around more countries.

Some athletes are overcoming slow starts. Veteran bobsled pilot Pierre Lueders of Edmonton struggled before winning back-to-back two-man races at St. Moritz, Switzerland earlier this year.

Women's pilot Helen Upperton also has a pair of victories.

Canada's speedskating teams remain strong. As of the beginning of February, Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., had won three gold medals and a silver in his last four races and was second in the 1,000-metre World Cup standings. Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont., led the women's 1,000-metre standings with Kristina Groves of Ottawa second.

Leading the charge in short-track is Charles Hamelin of Levis, Que., and Francois-Louis Tremblay of Montreal.

Olympic moguls champion Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., took 20 months off freestyle skiing to recover from a knee injury. Heading into this weekend's World Cup, she has a victory and three medals in four World Cup events.

As of the first of the month, Steve Omischl of North Bay, Ont., led the aerials standings and was second in the overall World Cup rankings. Alex Bilodeau of Rosemere, Que., topped the World Cup moguls standings and was third in the overall rankings.

Among this year's surprises is Jeff Batchelor of Oakville, Ont., who won the silver medal in the half-pipe at the snowboard world championships in Gangwon, South Korea.

In cross-country skiing, Ivan Babikov of Canmore won a gold medal in a segment of the gruelling Tour de Ski, a series of seven races over nine days in three different European countries. Alex Harvey, 20, St-Ferreol, Que., teamed up with veteran George Grey of Rossland, B.C., to win a bronze in the team relay in a World Cup event held last month at Whistler Olympic Park, the venue for the 2010 Games.

"It means Canada's men's relay team can podium at the World Cup and at the Olympics," says Harvey.

There also have been some disappointments this season.

As of the beginning of February, Canada's alpine ski team managed just three medals and no wins on the World Cup circuit. The women's team had yet to reach the podium.

Hudec remains confident the ski team can reach its goal of winning three Olympic medals.

"It's just a matter of timing and putting down that run on race day," says the Calgary resident. "Sure there aren't as many podiums and stuff this year but . . . there have been fourth places and fifth places and really great split times coming down some tracks.

"I think we are in good shape now to bring home medals at the Olympics. It's just a matter of who is going to do it on race day."

The Canadian skeleton racers had just three medals and no victories as of Feb. 1, well off pace from last season when they captured 14 medals.

That could change now races will be held on tracks in North America where the team usually does well.

"I've been thinking about 2010 since I picked up my sled in the outrun of 2006," says Melissa Hollingsworth, the Eckville, Alta., native who won a bronze medal in Turin. "We've got a four-year plan and it's always there. That's the ultimate goal and what you're working towards."

There also is some concern for the women's hockey team which lost to its arch rival the U.S. in both the world championships and Four Nations Cup.

"Those things have made us more focused, I really believe that," says head coach Melody Davidson. "Maybe I can get more attention from the players because some of the things they're doing aren't working and we need to make some adjustments."

For Canadian athletes to reach Own the Podium's goal of topping the 2010 medal standings they will probably need to win more than 30 medals.

Germany led the medal count in Turin with 29, including 11 gold. The U.S. was next with 25. Canada finished with seven gold, 10 silver and seven bronze for 24 medals.

Speedskaters are expected to win about half of Canada's medals in Vancouver.

"The expectation put on our sport from Own the Podium together from short-track and long-track is 15 medals," says Jean Dupre, director general of Speed Skating Canada.

Jackson says success in sports like snowboard, bobsled, skeleton, figure skating and ski cross is essential.

They are "the key middle sports that have to produce medals if we are to achieve the No. 1 status," he says. "If they can't do that, then there are a lots of other countries that will win 20 to 25 medals.

"Our goal is to be above that group."

Most athletes live in a world where their next competition is the most important. They are excited about the Games coming but know a lot of hard work remains before they actually compete for Olympic gold.

"There is going to be a lot of hype and a lot of focus and attention about what is happening here in 2010," says Groves. "I think that's awesome, it's great to be part of it.

"But I keep my feet on the ground and keep my head out of the clouds and just focus on what I'm doing."