Olympic skeleton preview: Canada’s Hollingsworth aiming for gold
When Mellisa Hollingsworth bolts off the starting line at the Vancouver Olympics, she’ll be pushed by an invisible, indomitable force.
Canada, from Halifax to Yellowknife, will be behind her.
A bronze medalist in skeleton four years ago at the Turin Games, Hollingsworth will have home-track advantage on the Whistler Sliding Center’s treacherous, 16-turn, supersonic track – a breathtaking thrill ride on Blackcomb Mountain where one mistake can be the difference between a visit to the podium and the hospital.
“I know this will be like no other race in my life,” Hollingsworth said. “The Olympics are a different animal all together, and I’m ready for it.”
She has spent half of her 30 years racing in skeleton, a sport measured in equal parts courage and speed. Hollingsworth, who has been the most consistent racer on the World Cup circuit this season, will be the favorite to win gold. It’s a role she held in 2006 but wasn’t prepared to handle.
“I was naive four years ago,” she said over the phone from St. Moritz, Switzerland. “Everything was new to me. I now know not to take anything for granted.”
That sentiment is something U.S women Noelle Pikus-Pace and Katie Uhlaender as well as American teammate and former men’s World Cup champion, Zach Lund, can appreciate.
In 2006, Pikus-Pace was less than four months from an Olympic berth when a freak accident shattered her right leg and dream of gold.
The 27-year-old Utah native had won the World Cup title in 2004-05, and was collecting medals on a regular basis when she was gruesomely overrun by a four-man bobsled piloted by an inexperienced driver while standing near the outrun of a track in Calgary, Alberta.
She sustained a compound fracture of her lower right leg, which required a titanium rod that remains implanted today.
Pikus-Pace defied predictions and returned to the track three months later, but fell short in a last-ditch bid to make the U.S. squad. Undaunted, she bounced back and won the 2007 world championship, took off the 2008 season to start a family – she has a daughter, Lacee – and is now poised for the end of an Olympic journey that has included some unforeseen uphill climbs.
She plans to retire after her final race in Whistler.
“It’s been a really long, trying road,” she said.
Pikus-Pace and Uhlaender, a two-time World Cup champion, should challenge for medals on Whistler’s unparalleled course, a challenging series of harrowing turns that leave no margin for error. At last year’s World Cup event, Hollingsworth led after one run but made a mistake in the fourth corner of her second heat, got turned sideways and finished ninth.
“Anything can go wrong at any point on the track,” said Hollingsworth. “It’s bitten me in the butt a few times.”
Uhlaender, sixth in the 2006 Olympic Games, has endured her own share of hardships.
The 25-year-old’s father, Ted, a former major league baseball player, coach and scout died last February. She has been racing this season after undergoing three surgeries to repair a kneecap she initially shattered while snowmobiling.
Uhlaender’s kneecap was once in nine pieces and is still affixed by pins and screws. She was on crutches as recently as September. The injury has tested her patience unlike anything before, but as her start times have steadily improved, she’s also getting back her bravado.
“At one point, I was told I probably wouldn’t make it,” she said. “By the time the games come around, I’ll be telling people to eat my ice.”
For Lund, the 2010 Games offer redemption.
Hours before the opening ceremony in Turin, he was slapped with a one-year suspension and barred from those games because the anti-balding medication he used contained a banned substance that was thought to be a steroid masking agent. The drug, finasteride, was eventually removed from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list, once that agency determined it wouldn’t mask anything.
That was of little consolation to Lund, who won the 2007 overall World Cup title but longs for a chance to rewrite his Olympic legacy.
Although he hasn’t gotten great results leading up to Vancouver, Lund, who has embraced his baldness, feels confident.
“I love the Whistler track,” said the 30-year-old, who finished seventh in last season’s World Cup event there. “I really clicked there.”
A recent World Cup win by American Eric Bernotas has given a much-needed boost to a struggling U.S. skeleton team, dubbed Team Turmoil four years ago following Lund’s ban, Pikus-Pace’s injury and a scandal involving a coach who was forced aside. Bernotas’ win on Jan. 15 in St. Moritz ended a nearly two-year winless drought for the Americans on the World Cup tour.
“We have all been sliding well,” said Bernotas, who finished sixth in Turin. “We just needed some luck on race day. We all know what we’re capable of doing.”
Latvia’s Martins Dukurs will be among the men’s medal favorites, pursued by a strong German team and Canada’s Jeff Pain, the Olympic silver medalist from 2006. Another Canadian, Jon Montgomery, is also a medal threat, especially on the Whistler track.
Britain’s Shelley Rudman has been on Hollingsworth’s heels during the World Cup season and the defending Olympic silver medal winner is aiming higher in Vancouver. Germany’s Marion Trott, the reigning world champion, won last season’s event in Whistler by more than one-half second, an eternity in skeleton.
Hollingsworth has been steadily building toward the ride of her life. Through this season’s first seven World Cup events, she has two wins, two second-place finishes and two thirds. She’s peaking at the perfect time.
“All of the parts are coming together for me,” she said. “I’m confident with my training, my equipment, my preparation.”
Along with the medal she captured in the Italian Alps four years ago, Hollingsworth celebrated her third-place finish by getting a tattoo of the Olympic rings on top of her left foot. She had them shaded in bronze, a marking she could easily have touched up in gold.
She intends to arrive at the Olympics wearing the No. 1 bib, which goes to the World Cup points leader. It would symbolize that she’s the one to beat and would place even more pressure – if that’s possible – on an athlete Canada is counting on to win.
“That would be the purest Olympics I could imagine,” she said. “On top of the mountain, just me and my sled.”
And a push team of 33 million.