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Olympic skeleton racer Hollingsworth learning to live with 2010 pressure

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Mellisa Hollingsworth was relaxing in her airplane aisle seat at 40,000 feet on Super Bowl Sunday when she spied herself on the tiny TV mounted flush in the chair in front of her.

It was a nationally televised Olympic promo spot, depicting the skeleton racer in soft focus, sliding down a chute of sheer ice to the sounds of august horns and strings and the mythmaking narrative of velvety voiced actor Donald Sutherland.

Next to Hollingsworth in the plane sat teammate Sarah Reid, and beside her a stranger, who was also watching the commercial.

Reid couldn't resist.

"Sarah is bumping his arm, saying 'Hey, do you know who that is?"' Hollingsworth recalls with a laugh during a recent interview. "I could've strangled her."

The 28-year-old from Eckville, Alta., is learning to live with the fame and pressure of being one of Canada's Olympic medal hopefuls in Vancouver in 2010 and the poster girl for a sport that still draws blank stares and quizzical expressions when discussed at parties.

Hollingsworth won bronze at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin and says to grab Olympic gold next February on the 1,450-metre course at the Whistler Sliding Centre, she first has to learn to let go.

"You have to rely on your instincts," says Hollingsworth. "You can't try too hard because when you try too hard you start steering too hard and you make over-corrections."

It has been a 14-year career of contradictions, troughs and triumphs for this slider with the misspelled name who wears her heart on her sled.

She was born in 1980, the same year war ravaged Afghanistan and just months after a Conservative minority government in Ottawa collapsed due to the strategic blunders of its leader.

Hollingsworth was brought up in cattle country, the foothills near Eckville west of Red Deer, where the earth begins to heave and swell into the horizon before soaring into mountains of rock and ice.

Her family lived on a ranch and raised horses. When she wasn't riding, grooming or barrel racing, she was going to school, running on the track team (short-distance sprinter) and playing basketball.

Her room was decorated in posters of kittens, horses, and country singer Garth Brooks. Winter afternoons were spent on her Krazy Karpet, sliding stomach-down hell bent to the bottom.

She once confided to a friend, as they rattled and bounced their way on a bus to the Alberta Games, that she would one day be an Olympian. She just wasn't sure what her sport would be.

Mellisa, in fact, was never supposed to be Mellisa with two L's and one S. Her parents gave her the conventional spelling - two S's and one L - but the nurse who filled out the chart wrote it the other way.

When Darcy Hollingsworth applied for a birth certificate for his daughter 14 years later, it came back like that.

And that, said the government, was that.

"(They said) 'If you want to change it you can go to court and it will cost you all this money and it will take all this time.' So we just decided to change it," she says.

Melissa became Mellisa around the same time her nascent need for speed found an outlet through first cousin Ryan Davenport, the drag racing son of a drag racer and two-time world champion in skeleton.

He ran a sliding school at Canada Olympic Park in nearby Calgary. He was part coach, part evangelist, spreading the word of the obscure sport that had not been part of the Olympics for half a century and wouldn't be again until 2002.

Few athletes around the world were even trying it at that time, he recalls, but he said Mellisa was game.

She remembers standing at the top of the ice slide looking down, way down, wondering what the heck she'd got herself into.

Start at the top! Davenport told her.

No way! She wanted to start part way down.

"You had to wonder if she was going to stick with it or not," he says. "But once she got off from the top, she realized it was a lot of fun and not imminent death."

Hollingsworth was hooked on the speed and adrenalin rush of a sport that got its name from early sleds that resembled skeletons.

Sliders careen down the track on their stomachs on fibreglass sleds over steel runners. Arms at their sides, they twist shoulders and legs to steer. Chin and toes are millimetres from the ice as a blue-white world hurtles past. Take the wrong line and G forces hammer the sled; the steel runners howl as they dig in to fight back, bringing the telltale roar of precious hundredths of a second bleeding away - the sound separating winners from losers.

Hollingsworth was strong, but wasn't a star. The hell bent Krazy Karpet kid was gone, replaced by a technician who ran clean lines and dragged her toes, never flaming out but hardly ever winning.

She was destined to make the 2002 Olympic team in Salt Lake, only to be usurped by hard-charging teammate Lindsay Alcock.

Darcy Hollingsworth picked up his daughter from the airport.

"She was heartbroken. She talked and just kind of poured her heart out," he recalls. "It was a long ride home."

"She was just kind of barely there," adds Davenport.

There were some medals, but also a lot of eighth-place finishes.

The turning point was February 2005 at the world championships on her home track in Calgary. Mellisa the Careful finished 10th to the dismay of family and friends.

"I got mad. I got angry," she says.

It was time to get back on the Krazy Karpet. To hell with the pretty lines. Let's get to the podium.

In the first race in the fall of 2005, she won it all - again in Calgary - to launch a dream season that saw her never miss the podium on the World Cup circuit and win bronze in Turin.

She won in Calgary despite sliding blind. She had a new hood for that season, which was actually longer than what she thought.

When she put her helmet on and pushed off down the track the hood slid over one eye at Turn 4 and kept inching, down, down.

"By the time I was going through corner 10 I couldn't see anything. I just thought 'This is how it is. Just let it go,"' she recalls.

She won the race and had seen the light: "It was a realization that I can rely on my instincts, I could feel my way down the track."

She arrived in Turin on a high, 14 family members and friends along for the ride.

But on the training run before competition, she finished a disappointing 11th. Pressure hit her like a punch in the gut.

"The reality set in that it's the Olympics and anything can happen."

On race day, it appeared the worst would come true. A poor final run put her in second with two sliders to go. It looked like a fourth-place finish and no medal.

"Vancouver flashed before my eyes," says Hollingsworth. "I wasn't sure I had enough in me to go another four years."

But when German slider Diana Sartor also struggled on the way down, the bronze came back.

"To be on the podium and watch the Maple Leaf (flag) rise and have my family front and centre, it was definitely worth all the heartache."

Her family will never be far away as she moves into the Olympic year.

Slapped on Hollingsworth's sled is an "I Love Alberta Beef" sticker. It's a reminder before every trip down a capricious sheet of ice that she can always look down and gain strength from her roots.

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