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Canadian skeleton racer Cassie Hawrysh puts Olympic dreams on ice

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to keep competing. It was that the adversity had started to feel so draining – nothing you could prepare for, with the level of expectation and pressure with no results,” said Cassie Hawrysh.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

After the heartache of not qualifying for Sochi, Cassie Hawrysh had badly wanted a better run-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. What she got was funding cuts and coaching changes and, for her part, not enough top placings to salvage her dream.

She was recently outlining everything she'd gone through as a national team skeleton racer when, mid-interview, she stopped and explained how it had all been so draining, like nothing she could have prepared for. It was why she told Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton on June 20 that she was formally retiring and why she confirmed it on social media Monday.

And with that, Hawrysh's once promising career in racing headfirst down an icy track came to an abrupt end. From start to finish, it had been a wild ride that began with a rapid ascent through the ranks, followed by a series of setbacks that she said included stinging rebukes from anonymous critics who used social media to call her a "disgrace" and "a piece of garbage." For what? For supposedly passing herself off as an Olympian when she was actually an alternate who never went to Sochi.

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"I've never once – ever – told this story without giving extreme context to what happened," the 33-year-old Brandon, Man. native insisted. "The truth is I didn't go to the Games and, no, I didn't get to compete as an Olympian, and I know that more than anyone in the world."

For a time, it looked as if Hawrysh might be bound for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. After trying the sport as a raw amateur in October, 2009, the former University of Windsor volleyball player and University of Regina track athlete began to work her way up in the standings. The plan was to give herself five years, then take stock of how well she was competing.

Everything seemed on course. She threw down a pair of fourth-place World Cup finishes in her rookie season, 2012-13. She finished 12th at the 2013 world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and was also a member of Canada's gold-medal entry in a World Cup team event in 2012. (The team event accumulates the times of a male and female bobsleigh pilot and a male and female skeleton racer.) Mellisa Hollingsworth and Sarah Reid had claimed the top-two sleds for Sochi, but Hawrysh was confident she could earn her spot because Canada was used to qualifying three women's sleds for an Olympics.

After finishing 10th and 11th at the first two Word Cup events leading up to the Olympics – both results failed to qualify her for Sochi – Hawrysh felt she had to win two Intercontinental Cup races in Park City, Utah. (The Intercontinental Cup is a notch below the World Cup.) If she did, she believed she would head to Igls, Austria, to compete at a World Cup race, hopefully to gain enough points to qualify another sled for Sochi. She finished first in both races, overcoming a faulty time clock on Day 1 and heavy snow that slowed conditions on Day 2.

Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton chose to rest its three World Cup skeleton racers – Hollingsworth, Reid and Robynne Thompson – over concerns they were showing concussion-like symptoms. Sitting them out meant no points, no third sled, no last chance for Hawrysh to make the Olympic team. Instead, she was named an alternate, which meant she stayed in Calgary and watched the Games on TV.

"It seems like Cassie's career has been a series of odd circumstances and near misses," said former head coach Duff Gibson. "On more than one occasion, finishing only a position or two better could very well have put her on the path to the Sochi Olympic team."

Hawrysh was ready to quit after Sochi, but chose to take a run at the 2018 Olympics. Then came the changes.

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High-performance director Nathan Cicoria and Gibson stepped down. Kelly Forbes, formerly the strength and conditioning coach, was named head coach, then wasn't: His tenure was cut short when Own the Podium's skeleton funding went from $3.498-million for the quadrennial leading to the Vancouver Olympics to $386,000 for Pyeongchang. (Forbes is now the player-development coach for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.)

On top of all that, Hawrysh struggled with equipment problems and never got the placings she wanted. She was also slagged on social media for labelling herself as an Olympian, as she does on her Facebook page. It identifies her as an RBC Olympian. Cicoria said that's happened with other athletes, too.

"I understand that first hand. [Being an alternate] puts you in a tough position," said Cicoria, now the managing director of Aerium Analytics. "Sponsors want to grab an Olympian and they promote the athlete. Often it's completely outside the athlete's call."

Cicoria added that Hawrysh "had all the tools, but sometimes timing and strategy need to come together just to get someone to the Games. Just to make the national team for Canada would put you on the Olympic team for other countries. She wasn't an Olympian but she could very well have been one, twice."

Hawrysh is too busy these days to be bound by disappointment. Not only does she work as a "millennial ambassador" for the Canadian Business Chicks – a Calgary-based organization that supports women in business – she has been nominated as a 2017 Woman of Inspiration. The award is sponsored by the Business Chicks, and other nominees include singer Sarah McLachlan and former Olympic gold-medal winners Chandra Crawford and Michelle Cameron.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to keep competing. It was that the adversity had started to feel so draining – nothing you could prepare for, with the level of expectation and pressure with no results," Hawrysh said. "I didn't want to quit. That's what I struggled with. What I knew was it was my decision.

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"I've been through so much, I feel like I have a great toolkit of preparation elements. I have a lot of things I'd like to do in my life."

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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