All winter sliding sports require a certain amount of gumption, but skeleton athletes must be especially brave.
They zip downhill face forward, and experience forces up to 5G’s, in their chosen sport.
While this may seem terrifying, for Cassie Hawrysh and other skeleton athletes, it can be viewed as “safe,” as the athlete is able to see where they’re going and control themselves, sans braking.
In 2009, Hawrysh, who lives and trains in Calgary, made a change.
“I trained that summer with Jeff Payne and Amy Gough. In October, 2009, I did a three-day skeleton school, called Discover Skeleton,” Hawrysh recalled, during a break from training for the Olympics in Sochi, Russia next February.
“I absolutely loved it from the start and I was hooked. It was an indescribable feeling. I guess you could describe skeleton as really intense tobogganing,” an exhausted Hawrysh said after her race at Canada Olympic Park.
Skeleton made its Olympic return in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, after a 54-year absence.
It was at the 1928 St. Moritz Winter Games that skeleton made its Olympic debut but the sport would not reappear until the 1948 Winter Games, which were also held in St. Moritz. Then, just as suddenly, skeleton went back in the closet again until its 2002 reemergence.
Women’s skeleton made its debut in Salt Lake City, too.
“Essentially, we run for 50m, called the push, bent over, holding onto a board 3.5 inches off the ground and we launch ourselves onto the sled and fit into the saddle,” Hawrsyh explained.
“Basically, you go from 100 per cent heart rate to calming yourself down in an instant. I equate it to shooting in the biathlon, as the better you can get, you can almost slow yourself down.”
“Steering takes place with your shoulders, knees and a last resort: your feet. If you’re laying on the sled and move your head to the left, that also acts as steering,” Hawrysh said.
For Hawrysh, originally from Manitoba and a journalism grad from the University of Regina, her life was due for a change.
Ever the determined athlete, with track and field and volleyball in her resume, being at university yet not taking part in athletics was something Hawrysh couldn’t fathom.
That’s where Carla Nicholls entered the equation. Now with Athletics Canada, Nicholls received a phone call from Hawrysh one day.
“When I switched schools, I thought I’d play for the volleyball team,” said Hawrysh.
“I called Carla and told her I couldn’t attend university and not do sports. She took a chance on me, was my go-to, head coach and friend,” Hawrysh said.
It was through Nicholls’ tutelage that developed Hawrysh into the elite athlete she is today, proving that her 10th place ranking in the world is no fluke.
Leading up to Sochi, Hawrysh has undergone rigorous training, about six days a week.
Getting to train and work with skeleton legend, Melissa Hollingsworth has been a boon for Hawrysh going forward.
“What’s not to like? We didn’t know each other too well until I was full-time on the team, and since then, we’ve been able to create a great friendship, almost like family.”
“Working with Mel and Sarah Reid really helps. When there are three different perspectives, it makes you look at everything a little differently,” said Hawrysh.
Watching Hollingsworth slide, it’s almost as though she’s not even trying.
Last year was a learning curve for Hawrysh. “We’d get to the track, be prepared and know what we want to do, yet sometimes things don’t always go as planned.”
“I’ve learned to trust the whole process and know it’s okay to not win every race, not to be so hard on myself and be patient with myself, the team, training and results,” Hawrysh said.
Sochi can’t come soon enough for Hawrysh, where the virtue of her patience should be on full display.