By Dan Plouffe
On the day that Ottawa’s most decorated Olympian of all-time retired from speed skating after a long and fulfilling international career as one of the very best athletes in her sport, it was a race that Kristina Groves skated as a 15-year-old Ottawa Pacer that she reflected on.
“It was a long track 800 m mass-start race and I won it, surprisingly, beating a group of girls who, until that point, beat me handily nearly every time we stepped onto the ice to race,” Groves writes of a North American championships competition on her blog at kristinagroves.ca. “I can still feel the raw disbelief, excitement and thrill of that feat as if it were yesterday. My whole body: heart, gut and mind, simultaneously merged at that glorious, fleeting instant and my insides just smiled all over.”
That the 34-year-old would pick out a memory from her days growing up in the nation’s capital speaks to the attachment she’s always felt to her hometown despite living and training in Calgary at the Olympic Oval for the past 16 years.
“It is true that I’ve always identified more strongly with Ottawa, and Ontario, for a myriad of reasons,” Groves says in an earlier post this summer. “Family, cottage, childhood nostalgia, hot summers, Gatineau Park – and to that end, it still feels like home to me.”
Groves grew up skating on the natural oval at Brewer Park. It hardly seemed like she had the makings of a world-class athlete in her formative years without heaps of obvious athletic talent, although the Brookfield High School grad did once manage to win a national capital cross-country skiing medal in scholastic competition.
“When I think about my career I think about the incredible amount of hard work I did to realize that distant potential,” Groves says. “I think about the uncanny patience I maintained while slowly, methodically, and consciously working towards my goals. And I think about those brief, outstanding moments when my desire to win united with that perfect balance between intention, execution and focus, where the end result was actually winning.”
No Canadian speed skater has ever collected as many medals as Groves at the world singledistance championships with a total three gold, five silver and 10 bronze. She won four Olympic medals – a pair of silver at the Torino Games in the 1,500 metres and the team pursuit, and a 1,500 silver in Vancouver along with a 3,000 m bronze.
But perhaps the accomplishments that best pay tribute to Groves’ overall abilities are the fact that she qualified for five different events at the Vancouver Olympics, not to mention the usual podium place she routinely occupied at the world all-around championships.
The final race of Groves’ career came last November when she wiped out in the team pursuit event in Berlin and wound up with a concussion that kept her out for the remainder of the season.
It wasn’t the effects of the concussion that knocked her out for good, emphasizes Groves, who’s recently been feeling almost totally healthy again.
A summertime of enjoying new activities such as “mountain biking, going hiking, picking strawberries, making jam, cruising on my Dutch Oma bike for ice cream and jumping off the dock repeatedly at the cottage” played a big part in her decision to leave the world of full-time training and competition.
“I’ve probably done more little adventures in the last two months than in the last five years combined,” notes Groves, who also felt her spark to drive towards the same goals had faded a bit. “I’m free to do as I choose on what has essentially become a months-long vacation.
“Of course the last 23 years have been one giant adventure too, but this unexpected hiatus, while initially unpleasant and unwelcome, has breathed a flush of fresh air into my life and rejuvenated my spirit.”
One aspect of Groves’ career that may be underappreciated in Canada is her tremendous success on the World Cup circuit. Her races on the largely European-based tour were seldom seen in North America, but the exceptional results speak to Groves’ remarkable ability to excel over a long period of time.
Speed Skating Canada even had trouble counting all her World Cup medal wins – “over 35” is the number mentioned in their news release announcing Groves’ retirement – although 18 of them came in the standout 2007-08 season when she also became only person to ever win five medals at one world championships.
Ottawa native Ivanie Blondin got a sense of the kind of star Groves was overseas during her first year competing in World Cups last season.
“The reporters would always try to talk to her, and so many different people would say hi to Kristina,” explains Blondin, adding that fans even knew who she was as a rookie, so the kind of attention and admiration Groves received was almost unimaginable. “People respect her so much over there.”
Groves always got a big ovation in Norway because of her mom’s roots in that country. She loved competing yearly in Hamar, as well as in the Netherlands where the passionate Dutch crowd recognized her talents and always cheered her on regardless of nationality.
But Groves’ motivation to reach the top never had very much to do with being recognized by others – it was all about pushing herself towards her own objectives.
Now as she sits in “in the peace of the done” (as she describes it based on a quote she found recently), Groves feels satisfied and content to leave speed skating with years of successes and memories.
“I now cherish every single damn thing I’ve ever experienced in this sport,” she concludes. “To say that I’m grateful for the opportunity is the understatement of the century.
“From where I started to where I finished: from losing to winning and learning to living, what a gift.”
Read related story: Ottawa speed skating community mourns, celebrates retirement of ‘humble’ Groves
Read related story: Groves’ ‘lasting impact’ to be felt for years
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