Road To The Olympic Games

Hollingsworth skids under spotlight

Nobody feels worse than slider Mellisa Hollingsworth right now, after her fifth-place finsih in women's skeleton at the Vancouver Olympics.

Nobody feels worse than Mellisa Hollingsworth right now.

The 29-year-old skeleton racer from Eckville, Alta., considered to be a lock for a podium finish at the Vancouver Olympic Games, had a medal slip through her fingers after a disastrous fourth run down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Friday night.

"I feel like I have let my entire country down," Hollingsworth told CTV as tears streamed down her rosy cheeks.

But she refused to make excuses. She didn't blame the pressure of being a gold-medal favourite in a home Olympics. She wouldn't criticize Canada's "Own the Podium" program for raising the stakes.

"Not at all. I just made a mistake. It could have happened anywhere, at a World Cup, but it happened at the Olympic Games," she said.

If anything, Canadians should appreciate her accountability, a trait that so many of our Olympians seem to wear on their sleeves — making their disappointments even more gut-wrenching.

Expectations hurt some athletes

Hollingsworth, who holds a bronze medal from the 2006 Torino Olympics, had been billed as one of Canada's top athletes to watch in Vancouver. Her face is plastered on billboards in cities across the country, along with other medal hopefuls such as skier Manny Osborne-Paradis, speedskater Jeremy Wotherspoon and figure skater Patrick Chan.

None of those contenders reached the podium.

With the exception of Chan, the others all had sizeable World Cup medal hauls to their credit.

But the rest reads like a book of Canadian Olympic history. Favourite reaches the start line. Heartbreak ensues.

For the most part, medals leader United States hasn't experienced the same kind of misfortune, with pre-Games favourites Lindsey Vonn and Shani Davis delivering gold, as expected.

In Hollingsworth's case, she had done so many things right in three of four runs down the Whistler track — a course that she knew like the back of her hand.

But after a blistering start on her fourth run, it all started to come unravelled at the worst possible time.

In a sport where timing is everything, Hollingsworth made a few costly errors that dropped her speed, booting her off the podium as she slid from second to fifth place.

Of course, there was a golden moment at the skeleton track on Friday night, courtesy of Russell, Man., native Jon Montgomery. But for whatever reason, the 2009 World Cup champion seemed to have less pressure on him than Hollingsworth, appearing on fewer billboards and in fewer Games-related commercials.

While he was a medal favourite, he may have snuck under the radar for the casual Canadian sports fan, perhaps overshadowed by teammate Jeff Pain, the silver medallist from 2006.

It's possible that Montgomery benefited from the fact his expectations were slightly lower than Hollingsworth's, who had hit the podium in seven of her past eight World Cup races.

So far, the microscope created by the home Olympics and Own the Podium is not translating into success on the track, slopes or ice.

For every example of an athlete like Montgomery, Christine Nesbitt, Maelle Ricker or Alexandre Bilodeau rising to the top, there are greater numbers of spotlighted athletes who seem to falter — some in heartbreaking fashion — on their quests for Olympic glory.

Like most Olympians, Hollingsworth has experienced her share of adversity, managing to push through the difficulties to become one of the best in the world at her sport.

Quick study

Her talent was evident when she first began hurling her body down a skeleton track head-first at break-neck speeds, as a teenager in the 1990s. She took an interest in the sport after watching her cousin, Ryan Davenport, an accomplished skeleton athlete at the time.

Just three months after she started competing, Hollingsworth won the national championship in January 1996.

She would go on to dominate the national and World Cup circuits over the next 14 years, but there were a few bumps along the way. In 2002, Hollingsworth was left off the Salt Lake City Olympic team in favour of her friend Lindsay Alcock.

Despite that, Hollingsworth still went to Utah to support her teammates.

"Things weren't always easy. … That's kind of what got me here today, with a lot of failures along the way — they're not necessarily a bad thing," she said in an earlier interview.

Four years ago, Hollingsworth experienced a minor disappointment in her final run in Turin. Ranked No. 1 heading into the fourth run, she faded to third, but still stood on the podium.

It was a proud moment that she shared with her family.

"Right away, I gave them the medal. I put it around their necks," Hollingsworth said.

And she knows she can count on family and friends to get her through the pain she's feeling right now.  

"For sure, I'm very disappointed for Mellisa," said teammate Michelle Kelly, who finished 13th.

"I think we all expected as Canadians to come out here and look for the podium sweep, and having the best day, we could," Kelly said.   

"We throw our hearts into this. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. At the end of the day, that's all we have."

With files from The Canadian Press