Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star, March 12, 2009
RICHMOND, B.C.–She's the top Canadian speed skater you've probably never heard of, someone who's carved out an impressive resumé on the ice while working to save the planet off it.
Okay, saving the planet is a little dramatic, especially when applied to Kristina Groves, an understated Olympian whose accomplishments dwarf her minuscule ego. She's quite content to skate in the shadow of better-known teammates Cindy Klassen, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Clara Hughes.
But she just might blow her cover one of these days, perhaps starting today in the women's 5,000 metres as competition begins at the world single distances speed skating championships.
"People don't really maybe know about Kristina just yet, but they will," said Hughes. "She's phenomenal, she really is. ... She just has this ability to focus and not care about what anyone thinks or the attention she gets. She's really a gem, I think. People are going to realize it soon."
The speed skating world knows about her, especially after her five-medal performance at the world single distance championships last year in Nagano, Japan. But it gave Groves little profile in her own country, where she has yet to even garner a personal sponsor.
Fortunately, those things are of little appeal to the 32-year-old from Ottawa.
"I would say I prefer it just the way it is," said Groves. "The great thing about our team is that there are so many people on any given day that can be up there and garner that spotlight, I guess."
When she does get the spotlight, she prefers to use it to promote the causes she's involved with, including Clean Air Champions and Right To Play. She's done some school presentations for Clean Air Champions, talking to kids about climate change and the choices they can make to help the environment.
"I just do it and I care about it and I've taken the time to be educated about it," Groves said. "I just think, `Well, somebody has to do something. What can I do?' I lend my name or sport to trying to further these causes and hopefully it accomplishes something."
Groves was part of a group of athletes that formed an environment committee to make proposals to Speed Skating Canada on conservation measures it could take.
"We formed this little `green team' ... and tried to come up with some ideas for Speed Skating Canada to say, `Okay, this is what we think we can do to get better.'"
Groves got a chance last April to be part of Climate Project Canada and was part of a group that spent a day with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, who, as narrator of the movie An Inconvenient Truth, has gained a large platform to raise awareness of global warming.
"That was a great experience," she said. "It's pretty inspiring to hear him speak and to spend a day with the guy, and David Suzuki was there as well. I mean these guys are so passionate about this and it's contagious and it's also shocking and scary because they have a lot of information that is accurate but generally ignored by most people."
Groves' own story is pretty inspiring. Her climb to becoming a top international speed skater was slow and steady – she didn't get a sniff of the podium for her first seven years on the World Cup circuit.
She laughs uproariously when it's suggested she wasn't a phenom.
"Oh God, that's funny," said Groves. "I love it, because some people say, `You weren't good when you were 20?' It makes me laugh. I was terrible when I was 20. I think one of the reasons I was able to stick with it even when I wasn't good was that when I was younger, I used to think I was better than I was.
"Not in a cocky way. There wasn't as much competition within Canada as there is now. In my mind, I'd think, `I'm doing pretty good.' Then, somewhere along the way, as I got better, that switched to, `Now I often don't think I'm as good as I am.'
"That's actually been a really positive switch because it keeps me constantly working to get better."
And, one day, people might just start taking some notice.