As Jon Montgomery makes his return to the skeleton scene, he’s finding that the competition has become stiffer — within Canada’s borders, at the very least.
The Olympic champ is back to lead the national men’s World Cup skeleton team this season after taking the 2011-12 season off. The Canadian rosters were announced Wednesday (Oct. 31) in Calgary, following the final team selection race at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Saturday afternoon (Oct. 27).
Montgomery has owned the Whistler track in its short history, with Olympic gold and two World Cup victories earned on the ice here. So it felt a little strange to see the Manitoba native in the runner-up spot behind Kelowna’s Eric Neilson on Saturday.
But maybe it shouldn’t.
“The program now is deeper than it’s ever been,” Montgomery said before a training session with the rest of the Canadian team Friday afternoon (Oct. 26) at the track.
“The men’s side is stacked right now. It’s really good to see. It keeps guys like me working hard and pushing.”
Neilson won his second-straight Canadian men’s title during the national championships held the previous weekend in Calgary, which also counted as a selection race, and shared the podium with Ontario’s Dave Greszczyszyn and Calgary’s John Fairbairn. Montgomery finished fifth.
“It’s competitive,” said Neilson, who with Montgomery and Fairbairn will round out the World Cup team roster. “It keeps you on your toes because you know that any day one of these guys could lay down a ripper and take it.
“I find it a lot more fun.”
Head coach Duff Gibson said Montgomery had been “pretty darn good” during the national team’s week of sliding in Whistler, but Gibson is pleased seeing other athletes stepping up to challenge the 33-year-old.
“It’s not that he made a huge, catastrophic mistake. That’s just how tight it was,” Gibson said of Montgomery’s fifth-place at nationals. “I like the fact that we’re having some really competitive races.”
Montgomery said his year off was productive, and it also came at an ideal time in his personal life. Wife and fellow national team member Darla Deschamps-Montgomery suffered a concussion in Norway last December and remains out of action.
“I think it was the best use of my time,” said Montgomery, who did spend part of the year sliding in Whistler and Calgary. “I was mostly working on some equipment development and looking after my wife … it was nice to be home with her.”
After some frustrating results during the post-Olympic year, part of the winter away focused on a re-design of his sled. Montgomery won the season-opening World Cup race in Whistler to start the 2010-11 season, but didn’t record another top-five finish and placed 11th at the world championships at Königssee, Germany.
“Everybody is looking for something different, whether it’s out of their vehicle that they drive down the road every day or the equipment that they use to perform,” said Montgomery. “I didn’t have available to me a sled that … I was looking for. If you want to create something in your own vision, it’s only up to you to get it done. You can’t wait for somebody else to do it.”
With the Sochi Games now little more than a year away, Montgomery is focused on defending his Olympic title in 2014 and feels encouraged as he gets back to racing.
“I’m pleased with where I’m at physically; where the sled is at as far as the development stages — I think we’re definitely on the right track,” he said. “It’s not without some final necessary tweaking, but we’re definitely headed down the right path.
“I’m excited about the races ahead and the road to Sochi.”
Hollingsworth heads up women’s team
Veteran slider Mellisa Hollingsworth was pre-selected for the national team and was a forerunner for selection races. She’ll be the defending champ in the women’s skeleton race when the FIBT World Cup tour stops back in Whistler Nov. 23 and 24.
Whistler has been a place of both triumph and heartbreak for the 32-year-old, but Hollingsworth said she won’t be treating this year’s Whistler race different than any other on the schedule.
“I have a lot of respect for this track, no matter how well I do. You’re only as good as your last run, really. It doesn’t matter if you won a World Cup (here) last year,” said Hollingsworth, noting that her biggest priority this season will be the world championships at St. Moritz, Switzerland at the beginning of February.
“Of course, every World Cup you’re at, you’re doing your absolute best and wanting to maintain points to get to world championships, but the main focus is world championships.”
Sarah Reid, who won Saturday’s women’s race, returns to the World Cup team this year and will be joined by rookie Manitoban slider Cassie Hawrysh. The World Cup season opens at Lake Placid starting Nov. 8.