Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star, February 21, 2010
RICHMOND, B.C.-In the final 200 metres of her sport’s toughest race, one that often leaves speed skaters with the taste of blood in their lungs, Kristina Groves’ heart and mind were shouting “Go.”
Unfortunately, her legs were screaming “No.”
Meanwhile, Dutch skater Ireen Wust had one eye on the big screen watching Groves in the final pair, knowing that for much of the race the Canadian was on pace to knock her off the top of the podium.
As a crowd of 6,000-plus rocked the Richmond Olympic Oval trying to urge Groves across the line, the spirit was definitely willing but those legs that felt like cement wouldn’t co-operate.
“You just kind of can’t move,” she would say later. “It’s incredible. You just kind of tie up. It’s sort of like the wheels are falling off.”
Well, the wheels didn’t fall off completely as Groves hung tough for a silver medal behind Wust in the women’s 1,500 metres, but the highly touted Canadian speed skating team has now suffered a few flat tires at these Games.
The Canadians had hoped to place two skaters on the podium in this event, having won four out of five World Cup races at the distance — Groves and Christine Nesbitt each had two wins.
Nesbitt, who also had a pair of silver medals in the 1,500 metres this season, followed up her Olympic gold medal in the 1,000 metres with a sixth-place finish. Brittany Schussler, considered an outside medal shot, had a skate problem just before her race and wound up 35th out of 36 skaters.
“The last Games in speed skating, we had 50 per cent of the medals,” said coach Marcel Lacroix. “As an organization, you aspire to do this again. ... When you’ve got medals slipping away like with Denny Morrison, for example, who’s been consistently on the podium, it hurts. It’s like, ‘Okay, is it us? Is it him? Is it what?’ It’s hard.”
Groves became Canada’s first double medallist of the Games, having earned a bronze in the women’s 3,000 metres, and now has four career Olympic medals. But it was clear she felt the gold was in her grasp.
“I’m feeling good,” she said. “I’m not feeling incredible. I think I just kind of tied up that last 100 metres. We’re always looking for the perfect race. I didn’t quite have it today. But I think in a couple of days I’ll appreciate it a lot more.”
Groves goes out as hard as she can in the 1,500 metres and is usually able to hold her technique together at the end.
“You know, the excitement, the nervousness, everything, that’s just the way it goes,” she said. “It’s sport. Ireen had an incredible race. She’s a competitor and she’s really good at bringing it out at the biggest competition. Overall, I’m satisfied, but deep in my heart I really wanted to win that race.”
For all the talk about home-ice advantage, the Canadians have struggled on the slow Oval ice. It certainly hurt Nesbitt, who is more of a sprinter compared to the three skaters who ended up with medals — Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic won the bronze.
“She (Nesbitt) was amazing all fall in that race and certainly the ice is really not forgiving and I think for someone like her — who is typically stronger at the beginning of the race — that was probably a tough finish,” said Groves “I was hoping we could both be up there.”
Nesbitt was forthright entering the Games, saying she wasn’t sure how she would handle the pressure of being a favourite for Olympic gold medals for the first time.
Lacroix, her personal coach, said she’d had a hard time sleeping before the 1,000 metres and was getting pulled in a lot of different directions after the gold medal win.
“It drains you out,” said Lacroix.
Nesbitt said it’s just started to sink in how much all the expectations were weighing on her.
“I didn’t acknowledge how much stress and pressure I had on myself to perform in that 1,000,” she said. “It took a lot of energy out of me. Even (Saturday), I was really tired during my pre-race skate and stuff. I went into this race just wanting to skate and enjoy it.
“And normally when I do that in a 1,500, I end up skating really well and I’m on the podium. I wasn’t today obviously, but it’s still good and I still won a gold medal so I can’t be that upset.”
Defending champion Cindy Klassen, a shadow of her former self since coming back from double knee surgery, couldn’t find the glide on the tough ice and finished 21st.