It’s 475 days until the 2014 Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia, but the first big step begins tomorrow for Cassie Hawrysh of Brandon and 2010 gold medallist Jon Montgomery of Russell.
Hawrysh and Montgomery will compete in the national team trials Saturday in Calgary and a week later in Whistler, B.C., and the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Sliders will need to make either the World Cup team or the Intercontinental Cup team in order to remain in consideration for Canada’s 2014 Olympic squad.
For Hawrysh, a Neelin High School graduate who is 30th in the world women’s skeleton rankings, it’s a chance to continue her meteoric rise in just her third year of competing internationally.
“I am super excited to get started with the whole race process itself,” Hawrysh said via telephone from Calgary where the national team is based.
“I mean, this is the most intense time for the Canadian team because we are all fighting for our jobs ... I am definitely feeling confident and I know I have done what I needed to do to prepare.”
The 28-year-old Hawrysh is coming off a remarkable season in which she clinched the America’s Cup tour women’s title with four first-place finishes in six races as well as second- and third-place showings. She was then promoted to the Europa Cup — the third tier of the four international tours — and promptly posted first-, second- and third-place finishes in her four races before capping her season with a bronze medal at the Canadian championships.
“The fact that last year kind of went the way it did was definitely a confidence booster, but at the same time that adds some extra pressure,” Hawrysh said. “For me, I am just worried about this right now and I am as ready as I need to be.”
In order to be eligible for Olympic consideration, Hawrysh must move up from the Europa Cup Tour to claim one of the five open spots on Canada’s Intercontinental Cup and World Cup teams, with Olympic silver medallist Melissa Hollingsworth the only athlete pre-selected for one of the three World Cup positions.
Hawrysh has been training all summer with Canada’s top athletes, including Hollingsworth and Sarah Reid, who will now put their friendships aside to keep their Olympic hopes alive as they battle for national team spots over the next two weekends — while sliding head-first at 140 kilometres an hour.
“We have a really deep women’s field with a lot of great athletes and there’s 10, 12 girls that are all fighting for these five spots,” said Hawrysh. “We all train together, so we all know what’s at stake … It’s not really the elephant in the room because everyone knows what we’re about to do.”
For his part, Montgomery is essentially starting from scratch after taking the entire 2011-12 season off from competition to focus on customizing a new sled. Despite his gold-medal performance at the Vancouver Olympics, Montgomery has to earn his national team spot, just like anyone else, in order to remain in the running to make Canada’s Olympic team for Sochi.
However, the 33-year-old Major Pratt High School graduate doesn’t believe the year off has hurt him.
“Not in any way, shape or form,” Montgomery said from Calgary.
“I think it’s probably without question only strengthened my resolve to get better and to continue to develop as an athlete … I’m pumped, for sure. I’ve got that nervous energy, which I think is good because it means that I care. And we’re going to be putting it on the line.”
With a deep field fighting for the top five national team spots, Montgomery isn’t taking anything for granted.
“There’s pressure for sure to perform, because these two races this weekend and next weekend as well as next season’s selection races are arguably the most important races of the season because if you don’t make the World Cup team, it becomes that much more difficult to make the Olympic squad,” Montgomery said.
“If you want to have a shot to leave your mark — and for me that is representing Canada and defending my gold in Sochi — then I’ve got to do well this weekend and next weekend. So these are as important of races as anything next to the Olympics, really.”
Montgomery made the difficult decision to take a year off to design a new sled after posting a few disappointing performances on the World Cup tour in 2010-11 after his victory in Whistler, while also seeing the equipment edge competitors like world champion Martins Dukurs of Latvia seemed to have.
“It was invaluable, actually,” Montgomery said.
“To be able to stand at the start line, regardless of what equipment it is I am going to be sliding on in 2014, I’ll know unequivocably that I’ve done everything within my power to make sure that I’m ready and whatever happens, should I be lucky enough to earn a spot to represent Canada in 2014, I will have no regrets … That kind of stuff could potentially haunt you for the rest of your life, the coulda, shoulda, wouldas. And I am leaving no stone unturned in readying myself for the lead-up to Sochi. And it all begins now.”