Written by Kelsey Chadwick
After two decades of training, plus sacrifices, challenges, and an eye-opening trip to Rwanda, Kristina Groves, 33, is both excited and nervous to skate at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Sure, it’s on her home turf, but this could also be the Olympics where she takes her last and final lap.
The date is December 4, 2009, the rink is silent which coincides with her mind, and the black, red and grey suit that she has worn time and time again clings to every muscle. A starter says “Ready.” She crouches, left arm just above left leg, left foot pointed forward. She puts her head down, the gun rises in the air...silence.
Before that gun goes off, to be in the moment for an athlete is the most difficult thing to conquer, some athletes never get that perfect moment when all the stars align and they’re fully emerged in what they are doing. Kristina Groves, Olympic long track speed skater, has been fortunate for that perfection to happen.
This date wasn’t just another day on the ice for Groves, this day she set a personal best in the
3,000-metre race, it was her last chance to showcase her talent on home ice before the 2010 Olympics in February and it was also her 33rd birthday.
Her resume charts the Olympic path: two-time overall World Cup champion in the 1,500-metre event, 21 World Cup medals in the past three seasons, Olympic silver medalist in 1,500 metre and Team Pursuit at the 2006 Turin Olympics. “What I’ve learned over the years, is the best races I’ve had is when I’m totally emerged in what I’m doing and just being present and in the moment,” explained Groves.
Submerging yourself 100 per cent is difficult in any race but Groves knows from experience that no matter how prepared you are anything and everything can happen in a race, especially when racing in the Olympics.
“The Olympics are completely different. Anything can happen and it always does,” says Groves. “It never ceases to amaze me that someone can win nine World Cups and not even make the podium. That’s what makes the Games so exciting.”
During the upcoming Winter Olympics, the long track speed skaters will compete in Richmond, B.C. This will be Groves’ third Olympics and with each visit to the Games she improves. At 25, Groves qualified for the 2002 Salt Lake Games. She placed 20th, 8th and 10th in her long track events, which include the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000-metre disciplines. Four years later at the 2006 Turin Olympics, a more focused and mature skater stepped onto the ice. Groves won two silver medals in the 1,500 metre and Team Pursuit races and continued to place in the Top 10 in the other three events.
With less than 100 days to go until Groves, along with hundreds of her Canadian teammates, enter the opening ceremonies in Vancouver it is certain that this is the Olympics that the 33-year-old will want to conquer and likely this is the Olympics where she will take her final lap. At the age of 33, Groves is in her 13th season on the long track national team and she is one of the veterans on the team, however she does have one teammate that is older and that is Clara Hughes who is 37.
“I sort of have always said that there is no way I’m going to go for another four years, she said. “So I think what the hell am I going to do? I have lots of ideas and certainly it’s a little bit scary to think, I’ve been doing this for some 22 to 21 years, I don’t know any other life.” -- Kristina Groves
This journey started at the age of 11 with Groves sitting in her family home in Ottawa watching then great speed skater Gaetan Boucher race at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Boucher didn’t win a medal at the ’88 Olympics but in the previous 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo he won three medals, which at that time was a record. While watching Boucher, Groves got her first glimpse of a sport that changed her life and became her primary focus over the next two decades.
“She was little but with big dreams and she would follow them,” explained Else Groves, Kristina’s mother.
Else borrowed a pair of speed skates from a friend and took Kristina to some ice where she fell in love with the sport. Kristina signed up to train with the Ottawa Pacers, the local skating club.
“When she first started, I would say she wasn’t a natural but she was enthusiastic and enjoyed training and enjoyed working,” said Dave Morrison, one of Groves' earlier coaches with the Pacers.
Morrison is still proud of his past skater, during the 2006 Turin Olympics, Morrison, a high school music teacher, stopped his class to watch Groves’ skate her silver medal race.
“When she skated the 1,500 metres, I was teaching but we turned the television on in the classroom without the sound and when her pair came up to skate I stopped the class so I could watch,” explained Morrison. “Then I had to watch two more pairs to make sure she still stayed in a medal position. “So I don’t think I really taught much that day.”
Sport has always been a contributing factor in Groves’ life; before she pursued her passion for skating, she spent many years with her family cross-country skiing. Her parents along with her older brother, Erik, were avid skiers, yet in some way Groves had a desire for more and it couldn’t be filled in that avenue. Else Groves is currently working part-time at Carleton University in Ottawa on an academic journal, while John Groves describes himself as semi-retired.
In one aspect it was a way for Groves to rebel and go against the snowy path that was already tracked for her. She was a disciplined child that her mom described as incredibly easy-going and fun to be with. But like all children you can’t leave your schooling years without at least one phone call home from the school, and Else experienced that phone call.
“The only time I got a call home from school was when Kristina was involved in a little incident where some girls carved their initials in a bathroom stall,” explained Else. “So I took her to the store, we got some paint and I made her pay for it. Then she went back to paint over it.”
If that school only knew that those initials would later belong to the person CTV called “the most decorated skater at the World Single Distances Championships” on its website. If they knew then maybe they would have left those initials on that stall as a memento of the great skater she would become.
Those around her could not have known the success that followed Groves when she first started in the sport. As Groves continued pushing herself and setting personal goals, coaches, as well as her family, started to see her focus and determination in improving.
“The difference with Kristina is that she has worked longer and harder than anybody and I think even from the beginning she enjoyed that process of working things out and training hard,” explained Morrison who coached her from age 14-18. “I think that is why she has had the success that she has now.”
Groves focused her effort on long track and Morrison explains that this is more of a disciplined area to specialize in when comparing it to short track.
“She is participating in the discipline that is long track and it’s very much that your own efforts are rewarded, explained Morrison. “It is just you against the clock. It’s not a team sport so it attracts people who like that kind of individual effort.”
Kristina Groves skated her best time in the 3 000 metre race at the Calgary Oval on Dec. 4 2009. This day wasn't just special because she had a successful skate but also because she was celebrating her 33 birthday.
Long track speed skating is more than just a sport; it has technical aspects to it that many people who watch at home couldn’t fathom. Their tight fitted skin suits cover their entire body including their heads. These suits minimize drag, which can save precious time because in this sport, every one hundredth of a second is vital. The importance of time could not have been more obvious then in 2006 when Groves won her silver medal at the Olympics. Her time was 1:56:74, while third place finisher Ireen Wust from the Netherlands finished 1:56:90—that is a difference of 16 one-hundredths of a second.
On-ice training, off-ice training, mental training, physical training, emotional training, eating right, resting; the life of an athlete is a demanding schedule. While this has been Groves’ life for 21 years, she can sit down today and say she doesn’t feel like she missed out on anything.
“I would say I had too much fun speed skating,” Groves explained. “I would say the odd time in high school I felt like a little bit of a nerd because I couldn’t, I didn’t get caught up in all the partying…. I was kind of glad I had sport instead of that, because it is just a way more positive and constructive thing to do with your time.”
When a child shows talent in a sport, many parents get too invested, they start spending more time and energy pushing their child, the typical term is “hockey moms.”
This was not the case in the Groves’ household. Else and John stayed out of the politics and didn't travel with Groves to meets around the country. The only time Else traveled with her daughter throughout her junior skating was once when Groves was 13 and the team traveled to skate in Calgary.
“We loved winter ourselves, maybe this was a very selfish thing to do but we didn’t always want to give up a weekend, to be standing in minus 50,” explained Else. “It was possibly a little bit of that but also we did see when our son was in hockey, the parents that took on too much of a role in their child’s sport and we chose to go the other way.”
Parents could learn from what Else and John did with Groves not only because she has been extremely successful in her career but to this day after all those years she still absolutely loves it.
“It was always very much my own thing and I am actually very thankful for that now that I’m older, knowing that I did it because I loved it, not because they told me to,” explained Groves.
After skating for seven years with the Ottawa Pacers, Groves took a turn in her life and moved to Calgary, to start training at the national training facility. At the young age of 18, Groves moved by herself to not only start a new training regime but to begin her degree in Kinesiology at the University of Calgary.
Like all parents, it was difficult to see Groves leave the nest but her parents knew that her dreams were beyond the limitations Ottawa had to offer. “It was a little sad,” explained John. “Also, I felt good because I was quite confident that she was capable and prepared to be on her own even though she was only 18.”
“I sort of have always said that there is no way I’m going to go for another four years, she said. “So I think what the hell am I going to do? I have lots of ideas and certainly it’s a little bit scary to think, I’ve been doing this for some 22 to 21 years. I don’t know any other life.”
The first year of university is a challenge for most 18 years-olds; the balance of school with a brand new way of life, along with this new found freedom could get the best of many. However, those temptations didn’t tempt Groves. Much like her 11-year-old self, she continued to remain focused. She spent much of her energy on training and making a name for herself at the National Training Centre.
“I think at the time, I looked back and thought I really missed out on that first year university thing but now I don’t regret it at all,” said Groves.
She was able to balance life as an athlete and life as a student and used them to refocus her energy. “I was really glad I stayed with school the whole way through, because it gives you something else to focus on,” said Groves. “If skating isn’t going well than you have school to focus on and vice versa.”
After eight years of studying, she managed to get her kinesiology degree—another goal she had set in her mind. “I didn’t want to be 35 and just have my high school diploma. It was really important to me to continue my education.”
Following the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where she debuted as an Olympic athlete, she knew she could do better. However Groves now looks back at various races not with regret or disappointment but with a mindset that allows her to grow and learn how to be better.
“Whether you win or lose or you fail, the happiness or disappointment that comes with that is pretty temporary,” explained Groves. “The joy or the pain, two weeks later it has just disappeared.”
Athletes compete. It is what they do; it is essentially what makes them tick. Winning and losing comes with the job and Groves recognizes that, however the most significant lessons she has learned through her life is when you do “fail” you have to be able to move on.
“In our society, there is a pretty huge fear of failure. Anytime I’ve ever failed, I’ve looked back on it and thought that was the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn something from it.
“If you just kind of fail and go back and keep beating yourself up about it, then it’s all for nothing, but if you can learn something that’s always been very important to me. I try to remember that.”
Throughout the many ups and downs of her skating career, Groves tried to keep in mind that there is a bigger world outside of her regimented schedule. Which is why she decided to devote some of her time to be an athlete ambassador for the Right to Play, an international organization that promotes sport and play to children in countries that are hit hard by poverty, war and disease. This foundation has impacted several children and is in effect in more than 23 countries and with 380 athlete ambassadors. Canada has more ambassadors than any other country with 97 athletes.
In 2007, Groves travelled to Rwanda with Right to Play. After experiencing the culture, and especially learning about the genocide, Groves came back to her world of training with a different frame of mind.
“It gives you perspective and more understanding on what’s more important in your life and what’s more important in the world,” said Groves. “On a global scale that is a really powerful thing for an athlete to have. When they go into a competition, they know life does not depend on this race.”
Teaching children to play is the universal message of this organization; striving to make the world a better place. Groves explained that basically over the half of Rwanda’s population is under the age of 15. “You also realize that there is so much hardship out there and we are privileged and we still complain about the most ridiculous things, and you think ‘Who am I to complain? I have everything I need, I’m so privileged’,” Groves said empathetically.
Being involved in organizations like Right to Play may open up many doors for Groves when she does retire giving her some sort of direction when she hangs up her skates.
“This is the first time I have [thought about retirement] because I now can see that this is going to end some day,” said Groves. “When I was 20-25, even late 20’s, I didn’t conceive that this was going to be over sometime. Now I’m very much aware I’m going to have to do something else with my life at some point.”
Groves understands post Whistler Olympics she will be at a cross roads in her life, facing the question that many people ask themselves—what’s next?
“All of a sudden now it’s three months and then it’s over and what are you going to do. I feel very fortunate that I don’t have decided right away and I probably won’t,” Groves explained. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time because I can do all kinds of stuff that I haven’t been able to do for years and it’s scary because I don’t know how to do that.”