Unlike her two previous Olympic Games, Mellisa Hollingsworth heads to Sochi, Russia, less of a favourite and more an underdog. She’s fine with that.
Hollingsworth, from Eckville, Alta., joined Sarah Reid and John Fairbairn of Calgary and Eric Neilson of Kelowna, B.C., as the first skeleton racers named to Canada’s 2014 Olympic team Wednesday. Another man and woman may be added to the skeleton team in January.
Reid, Fairbairn and Neilson are Olympic rookies. The 33-year-old Hollingsworth says her third Winter Games will be her last and she does not intend to bow out quietly.
“I’m definitely ready to step up to the plate,” she declared. “I’m still striving. I’m not there to participate, I’ll tell you that.”
Hollingsworth owns over 30 world championship and World Cup medals.
The last time many Canadians saw her, Hollingsworth was tearfully apologizing on national television for finishing fifth in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Hollingsworth won a bronze medal in 2006, so the pressure to win a medal at home was enormous. Heading to Sochi, she’s felt empowered by Canadians’ reactions to her public despair almost four years ago.
“I feel a lot stronger from that experience,” she said. “A lot of that has come from Canada’s support of people not throwing me under the bus for not winning a medal at those Olympics.
“That was a big eye-opener to know people are still behind you because of your character and not necessarily your result. That’s my definition of success right there.”
Hollingsworth was informed Sunday by head coach Duff Gibson, the 2006 Olympic men’s champion, that she was going to Sochi.
She won silver at the 2012 world championship, but felt short of the criteria for automatic nomination to the 2014 Olympic team.
Reid and Neilson both met the standard of four top-six World Cup results last season and in the first half of this season.
Fairbairn earned Canada’s second male spot because he is currently Canada’s top-ranked male in the spot. Hollingsworth ranked No. 2 among Canadian women behind Reid to earn the second female berth.
“Sure, it’s not the way I came in every other Olympic year kind of on fire and leading the World Cup standings, but then again at those Olympics Games I didn’t achieve what we thought I could,” Hollingsworth explained.
“I won an Olympic medal in Torino, but I was expected to win gold. Same thing in Vancouver.”
Canada had to rank among the top two countries in women’s skeleton and in the top three in men’s skeleton on Jan. 19 in order to qualify a third sled for both sexes.
Defending Olympic men’s champion Jon Montgomery was not among the group introduced Wednesday at a Calgary mall theatre. The Russell, Man., slider faces an uphill climb to claim the third men’s berth should Canada get it.
Montgomery took the 2011-12 season off from racing to build a new sled from scratch, but has yet to adjust to it and his results have suffered.
Cassie Hawrysh of Brandon, Man., and Robynne Thompson of Calgary are in the running for the possible third position on the women’s team.
Reid, a bronze medallist at the 2013 world championship, and the experienced Hollingsworth are Canada’s best chances to continue the country’s run of Olympic medals in the sport.
Hollingsworth also tried a new sled this season that did not work for her. She didn’t qualify at fall selection trials for Canada’s World Cup team and opened the season on the secondary Intercontinental Cup circuit.
When she had the opportunity to race a recent World Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., Hollingsworth got back on the sled she’d been on for a decade and a half and finished eighth.
“I was doing everything possible to get on some new equipment and get onto that state of flow on a new sled and it just did not work for me,” she explained.
“I spent 15 years of my life learning the ins and outs of that sled that it’s become an appendage, another part of my body. I went to Lake Placid and felt like me again. This is the first time since the world championships in 2012 that I’ve been this confident or this comfortable on my sled.”
For that reason, she’s hoping to build momentum in the four World Cup races before the Sochi Games in February.
“I’m the strongest and the fastest I’ve ever been,” Hollingsworth said. “I’m pushing a sled very, very well and now I’m confident in my sled that I have, the old sled and knowing it can still go fast.
“I’ve got four more opportunities to see where things can go result-wise, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is Sochi.”