What may be the most interestingly-named Olympic sport owes its moniker to a sled. Or rather, what people in the 19th century thought of that sled. When the world’s original sliding sport developed a new metal sled in 1892, some thought it resembled the bones of a human skeleton.
On such a sled (now mixed with fiberglass), Jeff Pain has etched a career considered the best ever for a Canadian skeleton athlete. For 15 years Pain has dove and slid down the track on the international stage. He’s been World Cup champion multiple times and World Champion twice. His sixth-place finish at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games was only a prelude to his silver medal in 2006.
“There is no greater feeling of honour than being able to compete for Canada and represent the greatest country in the world,” Pain said. “I am so fortunate to be able to hold our flag high and show off Canada to the rest of the world.”
While increased attention has been put on the World Cup season due to the approaching Winter Games in 2010, Canada’s top athletes seem to be well-grounded. Mellisa Hollingsworth, who won bronze in Turin in 2006, said that she feels no added weight this season.
“I have goals set and I feel focused, but I am not consumed [because that] leads to me being overwhelmed,” Hollingsworth said. “I know I perform my best when I’m having fun and enjoying the journey. I make sure I stay balanced in my life.”
Pain exudes veteran leadership in echoing his teammate’s opinion. “It is very easy to get over-focused on the Olympics,” he said. “I am working very hard this year to stay focused on the task at hand. If I focus on performing my best on each run then the results – and Olympic qualifiers – will take care of themselves.”
For an all-individual sport, skeleton in Canada is truly a team game. The World Cup team is a tight knit group of six, one that Hollingsworth said has a special dynamic. On one hand they are serious competitors, challenging one another to do better. On the other hand, they are out for fun. It is a team of laughter, of bonding, of enjoying the moment whether on the track, shopping, or blasting down waterslides in Germany.
“I am amazed by my teammates,” Hollingsworth said.
That team includes 12 skeleton athletes overall and the journey to 2010 is one taken by the entire group. “I have said from the beginning that if I don’t make the 2010 Olympic team, I will be the first one to volunteer to forerun,” Hollingsworth said. “I want to support whoever is standing on the block February 18 and 19, 2010.”
Just six athletes made the 2008-2009 World Cup team, which kicks off Nov. 25 to 30 in Winterberg, Germany. It proved to be the most challenging team selection in Canadian skeleton history, as great athletes had to beat great athletes for a spot. Those selection trials, in three parts, were devised to mimic upcoming international events. First they raced at the Whistler Sliding Centre for two days (mimic 2010 Olympic event). Then they headed to Calgary for two runs at Canada Olympic Park (mimic World Cup stop). Last, they travelled to Lake Placid, N.Y., site of the 2009 World Championships.
Pain said the World Cup team is filled with amazing athletes – and more talent than any other country. Team, for him, is the key word. “As we work together more and more, it will become harder and harder to beat us. I believe our strength is a common one: tenacity and passion mixed together.”
Do they feel any Olympic-sized pressure?
“Of course there will be added pressure moving towards 2010, which comes from wanting to make all Canadians proud,” said Pain. “I will focus on each moment as it comes and each day hone my skills so when the moment arrives I will be ready.”
Rather than feeling pressure, Hollingsworth said it was a gift to represent Canada in a sport that is so enjoyable. “I think it is much more important to focus on… pushing and sliding fast, instead of daydreaming about a gold medal,” she said. “If I put everything together on that day, the result will take care of itself.”
The World Cup Team, 2008-2009
• Paul Boehm – Fourth, 2006 Olympic Winter Games
• Mellisa Hollingsworth – Bronze, 2006 Olympic Winter Games
• Michelle Kelly – Gold, 2003 World Championships, 2nd Overall 2007-2008 World Cup circuit
• Jon Montgomery – Silver, 2008 World Championships
• Jeff Pain – Silver, 2006 Olympic Winter Games
• Sarah Reid – Gold, 2008 World Junior Championships
(Editorial Note: Pain and Hollingsworth corresponded via email from Germany)