Working through the hangover

There’s a rule on Lyndon Rush’s bobsled team.

VANCOUVER — There’s a rule on Lyndon Rush’s bobsled team.

During the summer Rush caught himself and some of his fellow crew members dismissing the upcoming World Cup season as “the year after the Olympics.”

“We’re not allowed to say that anymore,” the Olympic bronze medallist from Sylvan Lake said in a recent interview. “As a team, this is a big year, an important year.

“I’m as excited about this season as I was last season.”

Avoiding a post-Olympic hangover is never easy. It’s especially hard when the last Winter Games were held in your own country. It’s like a kid who counts the days until Christmas, then wakes up Boxing Day knowing it’s all over.

The Vancouver Olympics made heroes out of athletes many Canadians had never heard of before the Games. For the last four years sponsors poured money into programs, the media covered events it normally wouldn’t, and athletes who usually performed in obscurity found themselves on centre stage.

For Canada’s winter athletes, it was fun while it lasted.

“There’s no doubt this year is a lot different in feelings and emotions and levels of energy and excitement,” said freestyle skier Kristi Richards, who placed third in the season’s opening moguls event in Finland. “It’s a lot different from going into last season, there is no question.

“It becomes how you deal with that. For me, it’s about digging deeper within myself. Figuring out what really motivates me every day to get out and ski.”

On her blog, Richards describes the emotional battle she fought to prepare for this season after her dream of winning a gold medal at home ended in a fall which left her 20th.

“I am still left in this place of emptiness and mourning for the loss of that dream,” she wrote. “Letting go of this dream is like letting go of a loved one. I feel scared and alone and empty. I have to build new dreams and new ideas.

“I have to live on without the old dream. I am left to dig deep into myself to re-kindle my passion and my desire to be a great mogul skier.”

Gold medallist bobsled pilot Kaillie Humphries said some athletes are already planning ahead to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. Others are winding down their careers.

“I think some athletes are just along for the ride for another year or two because last year was such a great year,” said Humphries. “Some are really gearing up for another four-year cycle.”

Long-track speedskater Christine Nesbitt doesn’t seem to be stuck in a post-Olympic funk. The 25-year-old started the season with seven World Cup victories.

But it hasn’t been as easy as it looks.

“I’m surprised at how well I’m doing,” said Nesbitt. “I’ve struggled in getting my focus back and my drive and my motivation.”

Nesbitt is careful to put her success in perspective.

“A lot of the top athletes are kind of starting their four-year cycle all over again,” she said. “They might be a little bit not as focused or just kind of taking it easy. I know a lot of people didn’t start training until later in the summer.

“Everyone else is feeling the Olympics. That’s fair enough. I totally get it.”

Strengthened with money from Own the Podium, Canada’s winter athletes flexed their muscles the last couple seasons. Canadians won a record 28 world championship medals in 2009, more than traditional powerhouses Germany, the United States and Norway.

Jean Dupre, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, thinks the medal haul will continue this winter.

“I don’t anticipate a decline, even though we had some retirements,” he said. “I think we had a positive preparation impact on more athletes that are now ready to get on the World Cup circuit or ready to compete at the world championships.

“If we do (see fewer medals) we will have to ask ourselves some hard questions.”

There’s plenty of motivation for athletes this winter. Poor results can cost athletes sponsorship deals, even a spot on their national team.

Skier Erik Guay didn’t win an Olympic medal, but won the Crystal Globe as the overall World Cup champion in super-giant slalom. It was the first time in 28 years a Canadian won a discipline championship on the alpine skiing World Cup circuit.

Guay is already looking forward to this year’s world championships at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in February.

“We have a lot of different things to focus on during the four-year cycle,” he said. “For me this year it’s definitely the world championships.”

Ashleigh McIvor, the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in ski cross, said her sport needs to maintain the momentum it gained from the Olympics.

“I think the intensity level is going to be down a bit this year in comparison to last year as far as the fierceness of competition,” she said. “Our sport has seen massive exposure, more people are getting involved.

“That will counteract the decrease in mental drive. I think it is a really good opportunity to push forward and grow the sport.”

Richards has already seen the media, and some sponsors, lose interest in her sport.

“Right after the Olympics we have seen all the media drop off as well as some of the corporate sponsors,” she said. “Business-wise we understand that. But it’s hard. We are still here as athletes.”

Having an Olympics at home put some athletes under intense pressure. Win or lose, many heaved a sigh of relief when the Games ended.

Freestyle aerialist Warren Shouldice said he’s taking a different attitude into this year.

“With the whole pressure and all the hoopla around the Games being behind us, I think I’ve got back to doing it for the love of the sport,” said Shouldice. “I did take a big breath.”

For some athletes, this winter will be a chance for redemption.

Skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth of Eckville went into the Games a medal favourite. A mistake in her final run dropped her to fifth place.

Hollingsworth would have probably retired had she won a medal.

“I wasn’t happy with my results there,” she said. “It has motivated me to keep going.”

Downhill skier Britt Janyk is still burned the alpine team didn’t win a medal on its own hill.

“We’re quite hungry,” said Janyk. “We have world championships this season and we’re looking to grab some medals there.”

One of the heroes of the Vancouver Games was Alexandre Bilodeau. The moguls skier became the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal on home soil.

As great as that was, Bilodeau said the Games are history. He’s looking at the future.

“We have to put that aside,” he said. “We’re already talking about 2014.

“I have been planning what I need to do every year to obtain the objective in 2014.”