Cassie Hawrysh was an alternate to attend the 2014 Sochi Olympics in skeleton but never got to made the trip.
She dedicated herself for a chance to slide down the track at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. If she makes it there, her perseverance will have paid off, but it may be an uphill climb to get there.
The last two season have been difficult for the 32-year-old Brandon product. Last season she finished third at the Canadian skeleton qualifiers and hoped to compete on the World Cup (Tier 1) circuit but Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton decided not to send a third sled, dropping her to the Intercontinental Cup (Tier 2) tour.
Adjusting to a new sled without a full-time coach — after losing funding from Own the Podium, BCS cut down to one skeleton coach who solely focuses on the World Cup tour athletes — didn’t make things any easier and she struggled a bit while getting adjusted to it.
The Neelin graduate was back on the Intercontinental Cup tour this season and, since no standards have been released for how people will qualify for the Canadian Olympic skeleton team, took more risks with her equipment trying to figure it out. She never finished above 14th place in her Intercontinental Cup races in Igls, Austria or Konigsee, Germany and was the third-ranked Canadian on that tour.
She was looking forward to returning home for the circuit’s final two stops in Calgary and Lake Placid, N.Y., this month, but was told she would be a race-off with Madison Charney, who had a first and second-place finish on the North American Cup (Tier 3) tour, for that third spot. BCS has the right to do that with the third-place skeletors on each tour.
Despite competing in a Canadian event in December, in which Hawrysh had a faster time than Charney, BCS decided to use a North American Cup event in Park City, Utah on Saturday instead and stated that if the event was cancelled or both withdrew, then Charney would move up as she had more points this season.
Hawrysh felt good until the third day of training. The ice on the track can bulge and Hawrysh wasn’t aware there was a bump in turn six, a high-speed, sharp right-hand turn. The impact caused her head to bounce down, cracking her visor and smushing her nose, which started to bleed. She was one of three sliders to have their visors cracked before officials closed the track.
The next day was race day and due to conditions officials decided competitors would only get one run. Hawrysh’s nose wasn’t fully healed and the pressure from the first turn of her run caused it to bleed. She managed to finish the race in 52.36 seconds, however it was 0.11 seconds behind Charney.
Now that she’s been dropped to the North American Cup tour, and with only one event left on that circuit in Lake Placid on Jan. 19 and 20, Hawrysh has decided to take some time to herself. That doesn’t mean she’s giving up on her Olympic dream.
"I just need to heal and think forward and not look back too far back," said Hawrysh, who’s also a motivational speaker and is back in Brandon for at least a week. "Not one single thing is going to dictate (the hopes of going to the Olympics).
"This break is just to make sure I’m healthy more than anything."
Hawrysh admits that her season wasn’t the best, but that she was moving in the right direction. There is a bit of frustration though.
Leading up to the 2014 Olympics, qualifying standards were known by all the skeletors well in advance. Hawrysh isn’t sure whether what happened this season will affect her hopes of going to the 2018 Games, which is 394 days away.
BCS must release its qualifying standards by August.
It wasn’t that long ago when Canada had some of the best skeleton racers in the world, none more well known than Russell’s Jon Montgomery, who won gold in Vancouver in 2010 and now hosts "The Amazing Race Canada." After the team did not earn a medal in Sochi, the Own the Podium program turned its back on skeleton and massively cut its funding.
That caused coaches to be laid off and forced athletes to pay to race.
The athletes have to organize transportation to the events and around the community where it’s based as well as food and accommodations. They also have to hire coaches in each country they compete in, but those coaches see them for a week before the athletes move on to another coach for an event in a different country. That makes it hard to get a consistent message and feedback to improve their abilities.
By no means is it an easy situation for BCS to be in.
It has limited resources and is trying to keep its top athletes competitive but that means it’s limiting the development of everyone else, putting the program’s future in question.
It’s hard to imagine that the quality of competitors has decreased that much from where Canada was a standard around the world to where it has no future in the sport.
Every sports organization wants money and there’s only so much to go around as well. Own the Podium has helped produce some excellent stories, take a look at the national women’s swimming team in 2016, but is it worth it at the expense of other sports?
Hawrysh is tough. She will likely be back sliding head-first down a track of ice and keep on fighting for her Olympic spot. Whether she’ll be given a legitimate shot at getting there is another thing.
The biggest question, however, should surround the funding of this program. Has Canada taken that much of a step back and we should ignore it, or should there be some support while building up for the next Olympic Games and the future? Unless someone surprises with a medal next year, it’s likely the answer will be the former and athletes like Hawrysh will struggle to break through in the future.