Cassie Hawrysh has done the equivalent of play her way up from the most minor of minor leagues to the NHL in less than a year.
The 28-year-old from Brandon, Man., was one of six athletes named to Canada’s World Cup skeleton team Wednesday.
The former university volleyball player and track athlete opened last season on the America’s Cup circuit, which is entry-level racing.
Hawrysh (pronounced Ha-RESH) was promoted midway through the season to the Europa Cup. She won five of 10 races in total over both circuits and finished out of the medals once.
She earned one of three women’s berths on the national team at recent trials in Whistler, B.C. and Calgary. That allowed her to bypass the American Hockey League of skeleton, which is the Intercontinental Cup.
“I skipped a couple of steps,” Hawrysh acknowledged Wednesday. “This became all-encompassing for me when I realized I had a bit of a hang of it. I have a bit of a knack for sliding. I just committed everything to it. My whole life is this. I think about it all the time. I’ve done volleyball and done track, but nothing had become so everything.”
Hawrysh joins veteran Mellisa Hollingsworth of Eckville, Alta., a silver medallist at this year’s world championship, and former world junior champion Sarah Reid of Calgary on the Canadian women’s squad.
Reigning Olympic champion Jon Montgomery of Russell, Man., returns to racing after taking a season off to build a new sled from scratch. Calgary’s John Fairbairn and Eric Neilson of Kelowna, B.C., round out the men’s team.
The athletes wore Halloween costumes for their introductions at a local elementary school Wednesday in Calgary. They depart Thursday for Lake Placid, N.Y., and the season-opening World Cup there Nov. 8.
The skeleton and bobsled teams race the same international schedule. The lone Canadian stop on the World Cup in 2012-13 is Nov. 19-25 in Whistler.
The next season and a half is when the sliders must earn berths on the 2014 Olympic team. Canadian head coach Duff Gibson says four top-six results in World Cup races, and one of them during the 2013-14 season prior to Sochi, would be enough to qualify for the Winter Games.
Hawrysh didn’t start skeleton until 2009. She’d moved to Calgary to pursue track and field training in the 400-metre hurdles.
She did dryland training with skeleton athletes Jeff Pain and Amy Gough, attended a skeleton talent identification camp and then paid for a three-day sliding school.
“I said when I first started if I couldn’t make the national team in four or five years that I would stop,” Hawrysh said. “I didn’t come into this sport early in age. I was 25 when I started. Not that that’s ancient of anything. I’d already done two sports at an elite level. I wanted to make sure this was worth my while.”
Hawrysh played volleyball at the University of Windsor and ran track at the University of Regina while completing a journalism degree.
With sliders Gough and Darla Deschamps-Montgomery sidelined with concussions, the door was open Hawrysh to make the team this season. She made the most of her chance.
“Every once in awhile someone shows up who just gets it right away,” said Gibson, an Olympic gold medallist in 2006.
“That’s not the norm. Some of the best ones have taken years and years. We knew there was potential there and then she just blew the doors off at selection races this year.”
Added Hollingsworth: “She’s done very well and she got a lot of support this summer because of the promise she was showing last season on her tour. The federation wanted to make sure she was with the right coaches and around World Cup athletes to try and move her up as quickly as possible.
“She hasn’t struggled. She’s just maintained constant improvement.”
Hollingsworth, 32, has stood on the world championship podium each of the last two years. She won bronze in 2011. The 2013 world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, is important to her, as is the season-finale World Cup in Sochi, Russia, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“We’ve been focusing so much on world championships,” Hollingsworth said. “We get the opportunity to go to Sochi this season. It’ll be some testing, a training week and a race week - just taking in all those sights and learning as much as possible about Russia because we don’t know anything about Russia. We’ve never travelled there.”
Hollingsworth barrel races on the rodeo circuit during the summer. She competed in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world finals earlier this month and won day money Oct. 19 on an unfamiliar horse she’d borrowed.
After a more than a decade on the national team and 100 career World Cup races, Hollingsworth says the second sport keeps her fresh for skeleton. Her silver medal at the world championships pre-selected her to this year’s World Cup team and she didn’t have to race at trials.
Preliminary runs on the sled Montgomery built from scratch while on hiatus from racing last winter were promising in trials. The 33-year-old expects to be tweaking the model during the racing season, however.
“It’s not a finished product. There’s still some aspects of the construction and components we need to continue to develop, but it’s got the characteristics I was looking to build into it as far as responsiveness is concerned,” Montgomery explained. “Should I get it ship-shape and get my brain wrapped around how it handles, it will be definitely be what I need to be ready for Sochi.”
Another benefit of taking last season off for Montgomery was being home in Calgary with his wife Darla, who is recovering from the concussion she suffered in December.
“It’s nice to be back in the saddle again, but it’s going to be tough,” he said. “My wife is going to be at home and not on tour with me.
“Leaving her at home to recover from her concussion last December is going to be one of the sacrifices we’re both making to see this thing through.”