February 1, 2006
Ridin' and slidin'
Marriage an adventure for skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards and rodeo cowboy Billy Richards
TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

What's most scary?

Spending eight seconds on a bucking bronc? Or sliding down a bobsled track head-first? It's a family debate.

Billy Richards you may remember from appearances in Canadian Finals Rodeos, riding rough stock in saddle bronc - especially the one two years ago where he set the second-highest points total in history (87.5) despite riding on a broken leg.

His wife, Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards, has made it to the Turin Olympics, going the head-first-down-a-bobsled-run in the event known as skeleton.

"My theory is that rodeo is tougher because at least in skeleton, you always know which way the next turn is going to go. On a bucking bronc, you don't," said the Eckville slider on the phone from Igls, Austria, yesterday.

It was enough of a debate in the family that Billy made a wager with his wife, who is one of the best stories in Canadian sports having just won the World Cup championship and finishing on the podium in all seven events this year.

NOW THAT'S A BET!

"The bet was that I'd have to ride a bucking bronc if he did a skeleton run. He did it in Calgary this summer. So now, I have to ride a bronc. I don't think I'll pay that bet off until after Vancouver 2010, though."

A bet you wouldn't have made last summer was that Mellisa would be going into the Turin Olympic Winter Games as a gold-medal favourite and one of the best stories on the 198-member Canadian Olympic Team.

Until this year, she'd only made it to the World Cup podium three times in total in 10 years in the sport. This year she's not only the World Cup champion but has shown remarkable consistency in not finishing lower than third.

"I don't think it has been done before," said Teresa Schlachter, GM of Canada's skeleton program.

It's all about love and money, says Mellisa.

Melissa, when she walked down the aisle last summer to marry her bronc rider, says she decided that was the time to stop playing it safe in both her normal life and in her sport. She not only acquired a husband, she acquired a sponsor and the 'Own the Podium' money kicked in.

"I'm a poster girl for what sponsorship and 'Own the Podium' can do. Our whole skeleton team is a great example of what funding can do."

"I met my sponsor, Paul Bray of True Energy Trust, at a Canadian Sports Centre golf tournament. He set up a contract for three years and bought me a new sled. With the money, I didn't have to worry about working.

"The 'Own the Podium' money really helped our whole team with the coaching and support staff we have now. A great example is what it did for me. I was able to have 40 hours in the new wind tunnel built in Ottawa. That's worth about $1,500 an hour. I made a lot of changes because of what I discovered in that wind tunnel. I'm an example of what happens when somebody invests in you."

But being married to the rodeo cowboy has added a stability to her life, too.

"He's my security blanket," she said. "He's that little extra something in support that's there. It works so well between us. I know what he needs to do when he's gone for a month at a time, and he knows what I need to do. There's never any whining on the other end of the phone."

WON THE RACE BLINDFOLDED

The first World Cup race she won this year she won blindfolded. Her hood came down over her eyes during the final few turns.

"I just had to calm down and tell myself that I've slid on that track a thousand times and just to feel my way through it. I didn't think I had a chance to be No. 1, but I let it all out," she said of the World Cup series opener in Calgary.

Born in Lacombe, which hasn't produced many Olympians (sports columnists don't count), Hollingsworth-Richards grew up in Eckville, pop. 600, about 40 km to the west.

OWN CEREMONIES

And Eckville is where they'll hold their own opening ceremonies to celebrate on Feb. 10.

"My aunt Cheryl Gelinas has set up a website, www.go-mellisa-go.ca.

They're selling bracelets and T-shirts.

It sounds like it's going to be a pretty good deal."

Too bad she can't be there.

"I'm going to be marching in the opening ceremonies and I'd have carried the flag, too, if they'd asked me," she laughed.