The off-season for Cassie Hawrysh, like most Olympic hopefuls, lasts all of a couple of weeks.
Training is a year-round commitment when you are trying to compete with the best in the world. And with the start of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia just nine months away — 275 days to be precise — the Brandon native can’t wait to get back to training with Canada’s national skeleton team next week.
“I don’t know if I am anxious, or just excited,” said Hawrysh, who was back in Brandon yesterday and is spending a week at home in Manitoba before returning to Calgary where the national team is based.
“I know what we need to do this year and there’s a lot of steps between now and standing on the start line in Sochi. So it’s one step at the time, but I’m definitely ready to take those small steps each day.”
Hawrysh celebrated her 29th birthday yesterday, a birthdate she shares with 2014 Olympic gold-medal winning men’s skeleton racer Jon Montgomery of Russell. And while the 29th is not traditionally a big birthday milestone, it marked the start of what promises to be the biggest year of her life.
While she only began the sport in 2009, Hawrysh has quickly climbed the ranks and enjoyed a remarkable rookie season on the World Cup tour in 2012-13 — just missing the podium with a pair of fourth-place races and finishing ranked eighth overall — to put her in prime position to earn a spot on Canada’s 2014 Olympic team that will be named later this year.
“Obviously it’s very surreal for me, so you definitely step back once in awhile and just look at the big picture and think about what a ride it’s already been and we’re not even there yet,” she said. “I have talked to some other Olympians and they say this is going to be the biggest year of your life, but just take a deep breath and just let it all happen ...
“We have a really good team and they kind of got me ready to just worry about today and not tomorrow, kind of thing. But I am super excited for sure. It’s real, absolutely it’s real. But I think the fact that nothing is set in stone also kind of pokes at my brain once in awhile ... I just have to do the work and whatever happens, happens.”
After a quick break from the sport, Hawrysh is ready to start gearing up for the national team selection races in October in Calgary and Whistler, B.C., looking to hold onto her World Cup spot along with Canada’s Sarah Reid and Mellisa Hollingsworth, who finished ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, on the tour. But before then, Hawrysh has a spring and summer of hard off-season training ahead, not to mention some fundraising to support her Olympic dream.
Amazingly, while she is ranked in the top 10 in the world in her sport and is expected to take a year off work to train full-time in an Olympic season, Hawrysh still only receives about $1,000 a month in Sport Canada athlete funding, not nearly enough to make ends meet. She makes up the difference with help from her parents, and by drumming up local and national sponsors.
“(Sponsors) have always been important and it’s even more important now due to the fact that this year I will not be working,” said Hawrysh, who will be selling her ‘Team Cassie’ T-shirts at a lunch-hour fundraiser Thursday at Neelin High School, her alma mater. “This year I am going to just focus on training ... so it means I have more time to do recovery and I have more time to take care of the little things that are part of the big picture ...
“If (businesses) want to join ‘Team Cassie’ and be a part of Team Canada, too, it’s totally helping getting our athletes there (to Sochi) and everybody is kind of in the same boat and it’s no different for me. So we’re looking (for sponsors).”
Hawrysh, who will visit family and supporters in Dauphin today, started her week off by meeting with sponsors, local media and Mayor Shari Decter Hirst in Brandon on Monday.
“She was great, she was really supportive and excited, so that’s nice to have the city behind me,” Hawrysh said. “So why not be Brandon’s next Olympian? I’d be happy to do it.”
Hawrysh is also spending some quality time this week with her parents, who have become tireless supporters in pursuit of her Olympic dream.
“Seeing my parents and getting to be home is nice and relaxing for a few moments here and there, and Mom and Dad have been amazing, so supportive,” she said. “They are in the community when I’m not here ... and seeing all these people that they have helped me connect with and meeting them face-to-face is huge and it’s a big confidence boost and a morale boost. It’s great and it helps me get through the days when things are really tough.”
This weekend, Hawrysh is hoping to tap into another support system and draw on the experience of other Canadian Olympians when she heads to Vancouver to attend Canada’s Olympic Excellence Series, an orientation seminar for the country’s top 2014 Olympic hopefuls to help them prepare for the season-long journey to the Sochi Games.
“I am really excited about that and I think it will be a big help for me,” Hawrysh said. “They are bringing in a lot of ex-athletes, retired athletes and current athletes and I get to meet the actual Olympic team ... and that helps bring some unity to the team, so that will be good. And talking to people that have gone to the Games, other than just my (skeleton) teammates, it gives you some perspective and helps you understand that you are not alone in being a little bit nervous and anxious, for sure.”