The road to the Sochi Olympic Winter Games has been extra special for Mellisa Hollingsworth.
The 33-year-old Eckville native is heading into her third and final Olympic Games next month. When she’ll officially retire from the Canadian women’s skeleton team is certain, but she will do so before 2018, and when she does she’ll be remembered as one of Canada’s greats in the sport.
But right now she’s concentrating on stepping on the podium for a second time. She finished third in women’s skeleton at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy, before a fifth-place finish in Vancouver in 2010.
Despite the disappointment in Vancouver, Hollingsworth believes it was the strength of the country during that period that gave her the desire and commitment to stay involved for another four years.
“I’m just grateful to represent Canada again, but the only reason I’m here is because Canada supported me and didn’t kick me while I was down,” she said during a telephone interview from Austria.
“I lost an Olympic medal by 24/100ths of a second and it would have been completely different (now) if I didn’t have the support of the country. If they didn’t enjoy and support athletes, whether they won a medal or didn’t … it made me brave enough to try again.”
She went into the Vancouver Games as defending World Cup champion, and was in second place after the first three runs. But costly errors in her final run left her in fifth place.
In the emotional moments after the event, a tearful Hollingsworth apologized to the nation, saying she felt she had let Canadians down.
Four years later, she looks forward to another opportunity.
“It’s a game of consistency and while I’ve never been one to believe in luck, I’m open to everything.
“It comes down to being focused on your game that day and whatever happens, happens. As long as you’re prepared to do your very best on that day and not leave anything (on the course), then at the end of the day it’s all you can ask for.”
Hollingsworth sees the Sochi Games, which open on Feb. 7, as similar to those in Italy.
“There was a lot more on the table during the Vancouver Games. The whole country was involved in it well in advance and there was so much preparation prior to the Games. These Games are more like the first ones. People kind of forget about them until a couple of months out, then they remember.
“For myself, I’ve been at this for almost two decades and I appreciate it all. It also gets a lot harder as you get older. You’re dealing with hundredths of a second and there’s not much room for error. When there is (an error), there’s big consequences with it.”
Hollingsworth will have time after she leaves the sport to remember all the good times.
But she’s still willing to look back a bit now.
“During the year I take a little time to reminisce and be grateful. The result at the end of each race isn’t the be-all and end-all. Seeing the bigger picture is. Remembering great friends and the journey I’ve been on for such a long time is.
“But it’s also been an interesting year — I battled through equipment struggles and everything — but I feel I’m definitely in the best possible spot I could be in going into the Olympics. I’m really motivated, which is all I could ask for.”
Hollingsworth’s equipment problems came about when she decided to change sleds at the beginning of this season.
“I had a new sled, which I trained on last year but didn’t race on it,” she explained. “This year I decided to fully commit to it, but it was like golf where you have that one drive and you think you’ll conquer the world. That’s how that sled was for me. I’d have one great run, smoking fast, and then the next 10 were terrible.”
She changed back to her old sled just prior to the World Cup in Lake Placid and saw immediate dividends with a second-place finish.
“Things have been amazing since then,” she said. “I’m more confident with my setup and equipment and I’m not questioning if I should be on that other sled. I’m not looking over my shoulder and wondering what I should be doing, I know my exact setup.”
She said she is mentally prepared. “Definitely.
“When you’re at the top of any sport, the best athletes of each country are capable of doing the same thing physically on game day. The rest is completely mental preparation.”
Hollingsworth has competed on the Sochi track and she trained there in November.
“Sochi is a quick track, but it has an uphill section, which gives you a false sense of being out of the corners when suddenly you’re into blind corners, that’s the tricky part of it. It also definitely favours the start. The Russians, both men and women, have been breaking start records all over the world and it was designed with them in mind. So if you can stay competitive at the start, you should be competitive down the hill.”
Hollingsworth was born and raised on a Central Alberta ranch and loves horses and competes on the rodeo circuit in barrel racing. Whether she turns to that full time after this season isn’t known for sure.
“Horses are part of me, but we’ll see what happens if I hit the rodeo road,” she said. “My goal is to be back on the Olympic podium and there will be a lot of responsibilities afterward. I have my school speaking program (Passion for Excellence) and lots of schools and sponsor commitments.”
Then she can see what her presence in the sport has helped her accomplish. She may well be the biggest name in skeleton, although she wouldn’t admit it.
“I’ve watched the sport evolve in Canada and worldwide,” she said. “There were times when no one had a clue what the sport was. Now there are household names on my team and it’s rewarding to be part of that evolution. And it’s been rewarding for myself to be competitive during all that time.
“I saw a Twitter where I was the all-time leader in World Cup podium finishes with 34. I had no idea, so there were a lot of great things that happened to me.”
She is a two-time World Cup point standings champion and finished third on another occasion. She also has a second, third, two fifths and two sixths at World Championships.
And the final chapter of her outstanding career has yet to be written.