Russell’s Jon Montgomery and Brandon’s Cassie Hawrysh may be two of the top athletes in the world in the sport of skeleton, but they won’t be competing for Canada in next month’s Sochi Winter Games.
In the end, a combination of complicated qualifying criteria, questionable coaching decisions, equipment issues, illness and ill-timed subpar performances conspired to keep the two Westman Olympic hopefuls from going to Russia.
Yes, both held their Olympic fates in their own hands at various times this season, albeit racing headfirst at 140 kilometres an hour on tricky, ice-covered tracks that magnify the most minute of mistakes into missed medal opportunities. But ultimately, it’s troubling when the defending Olympic men’s gold medallist and a woman ranked in the top 20 in the entire world, don’t crack Canada’s Olympic team.
Canada will still send two men — John Fairbairn and Eric Neilson — and two women — Sarah Reid and Mellisa Hollingsworth — to Russia, but it’s the first time that our country has failed to qualify three competitors in both men’s and women’s skeleton, a sport in which we won four medals in the past two Olympics.
It’s those botched third spots that kept Montgomery and Hawrysh from going to Sochi, and something the Canadian coaching staff needs to share the blame for.
"To be honest, I’m really frustrated and a little bit embarrassed that this happened while I’m the head coach, because this is the first time that Canada hasn’t qualified three spots," said Canadian head coach Duff Gibson, an Olympic gold medallist himself for Canada back in 2006.
It may be small consolation now, but Gibson did confirm that Hawrysh would be the first choice if either Reid or Hollingsworth — who pulled out of the final World Cup race last weekend due to concussion issues — can not compete in Sochi. However, Gibson is confident that won’t be an issue.
"They will be good for the Olympics, but if something was to happen, Cassie would be the alternate," Gibson said. "And that is sort of breaking news and I don’t think we’ve even mentioned that to Cassie yet."
Hawrysh is currently back in Brandon, relaxing and reflecting on a season that began with so much promise, but ended in heartbreak. However, the 29-year-old Neelin graduate said the disappointment has only fueled her fire for the next four years as she sets her sights on the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"Certainly the initial reaction to trying to achieve a huge goal and just coming up a bit short was tough … but this can only make me better in terms of being ready for the next round," Hawrysh said. "The frustration of the process, in general, is what it is. But in terms of my desire to represent Canada, that didn’t go away."
Unfortunately, despite a fabulous finish to her season, Hawrysh’s last chance to qualify was taken away from her when Gibson pulled Hollingsworth, Reid and rookie Robynne Thompson out of last weekend’s race, ending any hopes of Canada qualifying a third slider for Sochi. What was truly frustrating was that a healthy Hawrysh wasn’t called in as a late replacement, despite finishing her final three races on the second-tier Intercontinental Cup tour with back-to-back golds and a silver medal.
It was a fabulous finish to a season in which Hawrysh began ranked ninth in the world, but was demoted from the World Cup to the IC Cup to make room for Hollingsworth, despite Hawrysh posting 10th- and 11th-place finishes against the best sliders in the world.
The Canadian coaching staff chose to keep the inexperienced Thompson — who was eighth and 10th in her first two races — on the World Cup at that time and, more importantly, never removed her at mid-season when she showed serious signs of struggling with 16th-, 17th- and 18th-place finishes. While Hollingsworth got the benefit of the doubt for her past performances — including a bronze medal in the 2006 Olympics — Hawrysh clearly didn’t get any credit for her previous performances, including a pair of fine fourth-place finishes on the World Cup tour last season and her overall ninth-place ranking among the world’s best sliders.
While disappointed — if not devastated — Hawrysh is starting to come to terms with how it all went down.
"Ultimately we all know what happened and now it’s done, so now I just cheer on Canada regardless," she said.
For his part, Montgomery’s gold-medal moment from the Vancouver Olympics also didn’t seem to hold any weight with the Canadian coaching staff as he struggled to adjust to the new sled he helped design. Instead, Gibson’s staff stubbornly stuck with inexperienced slider Dave Greszczyszyn, who came out of nowhere to start the season with a sixth-place finish but quickly fell off the rails with dismal 20th- and 26th-place efforts. Yet somehow he held onto his World Cup spot at mid-season, despite Montgomery’s magnificent Olympic history and the fact he was showing progress with back-to-back sixth-place finishes on the IC tour at that time.
"It was a little bit disappointing for sure that I didn’t get the benefit of the doubt to move up to the World Cup," Montgomery said at the time. "It’s definitely much easier (to qualify for the Olympics) from the World Cup (than the IC Cup). It’s disappointing from the respect that I thought my results maybe would have warranted it … and the fact that I was the fastest Canadian athlete down the track (in training) in Sochi this fall."
By the time the 34-year-old Montgomery was finally promoted to the World Cup tour in early January in a last desperate bid by the Canadian coaching staff to earn a third men’s skeleton spot in Sochi, it was a case of too little, too late. Like Hawrysh, Montgomery saved his best for last, racing to a seventh-place finish in the World Cup season finale, facing the same field of Olympians who will compete in Sochi next month.
We’ll never know if Montgomery and Hawrysh would have qualified for the Olympics had they been called up to the World Cup at mid-season, but it would have been nice to have seen them actually get that chance. Yes, hindsight is always 20/20, but in the end the coaching staff’s questionable call to stick with Thompson and Greszczyszyn instead of Hawrysh and Montgomery failed miserably.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 24, 2014