Cassie Hawrysh’s road to the Olympics just got a whole lot more difficult after funding for the sport of skeleton was slashed to bare bones levels.
The 29-year-old Brandonite was shocked to learn that the sport’s Own The Podium funding was decimated after being shut out of the medals at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Last season, Canada’s skeleton program received $875,000 — a large chunk of its annual budget — from the government-funded Own The Podium program, but will only get $20,000 this season, not enough to cover a season’s worth of competition costs, training and travel for even one athlete.
"We’re suddenly standing there like, what are we supposed to do now?" said Hawrysh from Calgary where the national team is based.
"This isn’t just about me, this affects the entire skeleton program ... We’re not the first sport to get nothing. Sports like luge have been dealing with this for years ... but it’s tough. It’s tough for all of us in the whole skeleton program."
Own The Podium’s mandate is to focus funding on elite-level athletes in an effort to boost medal counts. But after Canada’s four Olympic competitors in Sochi failed to make the medal podium after success in the previous two Games — including a gold medal performance from Russell’s Jon Montgomery in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics — skeleton athletes have been frozen out from receiving adequate funding this season as they begin the road to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"In Torino (the 2006 Games), Duff Gibson won gold, Jeff Pain won silver and Mellisa (Hollingsworth) won bronze, so we went from three medals to Vancouver we only won one with Jon (Montgomery) and this year we won none," Hawrysh said. "So in their eyes it has been nothing but a straight decline for the last eight years."
While the Own The Podium program rewards our Canadian medal winners with solid support, the focus on golden glory is a slippery slope that does little to develop the next generation of athletes who have yet to prove themselves at the international level. For skeleton, the massive funding cut has resulted in a number of coaches and managers being let go over the past few weeks, leaving the sport without a full-time head coach.
"It will dramatically affect our ability to provide programing for our athletes," said Don Wilson, the chief executive officer of Bobsleigh Skeleton Canada. "We are reviewing the entire system," he added.
For Hawrysh, who was ranked in the top 10 in the world skeleton rankings at one point last season but did not make the final Olympic team, the funding cuts have left her looking at paying her own way this season to continue in the sport, a $20,000 to $30,000 commitment. While Hawrysh received a modest $900 per month in athlete funding last season and should have been eligible for the maximum $1,500 stipend this season, all of her funding has now been put on hold until she proves herself again by making the World Cup team this fall. Unfortunately, to make that team, she needs to train full-time and will be out of pocket for costs like physiotherapy treatments.
"I don’t want this to come across as some sort of entitlement ... but I am just scraping by here," she said, noting her part-time weekend job simply doesn’t pay the bills.
"Regardless of what happens, we are going to have to pay for the majority of our season this year, all of us, because there won’t be enough money."
Another road block thrown her way is the new qualifying standards that skeleton is adopting, focusing first and foremost on the push times out of the gate. To be considered for the World Cup team, racers will have to post start times of 5.25 seconds in next month’s push camp at the Ice House Sliding Centre in Calgary, where Hawrysh’s best previous time was 5.31 seconds. While Hawrysh has proven to be an excellent driver down the track, her start times aren’t her strength, creating another challenge to return to the World Cup team.
"Obviously my skill set lies more strongly in my driving ability, but it’s not going to help me in the push section, so my focus now is to make sure that is taken care of," Hawrysh said. "But obviously this is a huge change and it makes it really difficult ... Where do I fit in (with the national team), ultimately I won’t know that fully until August."