Dan Plouffe, SportsOttawa.com, January 10, 2013

4-time Olympic speed skating medalist Kristina Groves to return home for 2012 Ottawa Sports Awards gala & have female athlete of the year trophy named after her

Memories of frozen hands, chilling temperatures and whipping winds typically aren’t fond childhood recollections. But for Kristina Groves, they’re nostalgic moments from her teenage years when she and her Ottawa Pacers friends would go to Brewer Park during their Christmas holidays and help the volunteer crew maintain the outdoor long-track oval.

“We would bring out the fire hoses and flood it for a couple hours in the morning,” Groves recounts. “Then we’d go back to one of the guys’ houses and play Pictionary for hours. And then we’d go back to the oval and flood it again.”

The experience helped build a special connection to the ice that eventually led her all over the globe, she notes, but most of all, it was just plain fun.

“We had a blast,” Groves smiles. “I mean, that kind of stuff is sort of like Canadian lore. It makes me so happy when I think that that’s what we did.”

Of course, that tall teen with few signs of natural athletic talent went on to become Ottawa’s most decorated Olympian of all time, and won the most medals of any Canadian at the world single-distance championships with three gold, five silver and 10 bronze over the course of her 23-year speed skating career that began at Brewer Park.

Groves’ place in local sports history will be further cemented when she comes to the 2012 Ottawa Sports Awards banquet on Jan. 30 at Algonquin College to present the trophy that will now be called “The Kristina Groves Female Athlete of the Year Award.”

“It’s just a huge honour,” Groves says. “Ottawa’s obviously produced a lot of wonderful and successful athletes over the years, and to be among them makes me feel very proud that I accomplished what I did.”

It’s now been a little over a year since the 35-year-old retired from speed skating and thus ended the perennial hold she owned on the city’s top female athlete honour. Groves earned the award five consecutive times from 2006 to 2010, and also won in 2004.

Groves’ career was a long, steady rise – her results as a youth and early in her career were unspectacular, but she kept driving forward and wound up with two silver medals from the 2006 Olympics in Torino. That made the sudden drop pretty harsh once she decided to hang up the blades.

“You’re so driven and so focused for so long, and then it’s over, and I sort of felt lost for awhile,” shares the Vancouver 2010 silver and bronze medalist. “It’s been challenging. I didn’t quit speed skating because I had something else I wanted to do, I quit because I didn’t want to skate any more. I didn’t have a plan or really any clue of what I wanted to do.”

Groves took a bit of time to relax, skied a ton, and kept busy for a year public speaking, and using her voice as an athlete to advocate for Right To Play – an international organization seeking to spread sport to disadvantaged parts of the world – and Clean Air Champions, whose mission is to improve air quality and reduce climate change with the help of high-performance athletes. In a way, this led to her recent decision to pursue a Master’s degree in sustainable energy development at the University of Calgary.

“We all have our passions, and for me, that’s one of them,” explains the Brookfield High School grad who recalls her interest in the environment dates back to her days at the Riverside school. “I’m constantly scouring the Internet looking at new technologies coming out, policies and government initiatives, issues and problems.”
Groves is happy to have found a new path.

“It’s really challenging when you quit sport,” she highlights. “Especially being in it so long at the level I was, you sort of get over your old life and you have to make a new one.”

What Groves misses most and least about speed skating is essentially the same.

“I miss the day-to-day focus,” explains the owner of nearly 40 World Cup medals. “I always woke up and I had somewhere to be and I was on a mission. I miss having that goal and that focus and the drive to do something, and I miss the social aspect for sure. 

“But I don’t really miss the travel and constantly being on-guard, all the time. You’re working 24/7. Everything you do as an athlete, whether it’s eating, having a nap, getting therapy, training – all that stuff means you’re on the clock. Now I can sort of check out whenever.

“I can hang out with my friends or go to bed whenever I want. I don’t have to worry about the impact it’s going to have on my performance.”

Groves knows her connection with the sport that consumed her life will always be there. She informally mentors younger skaters in Calgary by going for coffee with them from time to time, she continues to promote amateur sport through her intriguing blog at kristinagroves.ca , and her main employment at the moment is doing speed skating commentary for CBC. 

“I enjoy it, and it’s a challenge. Some days I come home from a day at the studio and I feel like I raced myself,” Groves describes. “It’s pretty stressful. It’s really fun if it’s live because you’re so caught up in the moment, and you’re performing in a way. I really enjoy it quite a bit. 

“And I’m next to Steve Armitage, he’s like a legend.”

Groves will be headed to Toronto to call races on tape from CBC headquarters after the Sports Awards banquet, but first comes her stop in Ottawa to be feted along with the local sports community.

“I really am looking forward to it,” says Groves, noting the event provides a chance to come home and thank all the people at home for their support. “All those years that I won that award, I could never be there. To have the opportunity to finally be there, and especially because they’re naming it after me, it’s really an honour.”

Blondin in line for top prize?

“It’s nice to see some of the younger skaters starting to develop and slowly start climbing the ranks again,” Groves underlines, noting that there haven’t been many developmental opportunities since she, Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen did every 3k and 5k at 2002, 2006 and 2010 Games.

“There’s a bit of a gap in the results the Canadian team in its last several years,” adds the Calgary resident who still drops by the oval occasionally. “There’s a young group of girls coming up, including Ivanie, who are starting to slowly bridge that gap. It’s not necessarily going to happen immediately, but it should and hopefully will happen as they develop.”

Other strong candidates for the award would be: Courtnay Pilypaitis, who was named team MVP for Canada at the last-chance Olympic qualifier and helped her team to a fifth-place showing in London; CIS women’s soccer MVP and W-League champion Gillian Baggott of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and Ottawa Fury; Emily Kemp, who won Canada’s first-ever medal at a world orienteering championships – a junior women’s bronze; and modern pentathlon World Cup finals seventh-place finisher Melanie McCann, who went on to finish 11th in London.

Male athlete of the year candidates include T11 athletics silver and bronze Paralympic medalist Jason Dunkerley; Craig Savill, the lead for Glenn Howard’s 2012 world-champion curling rink; wheelchair rugby Paralympic silver medalist Patrice Dagenais; and 4x100 m relay Olympic finalist Seyi Smith.

Also to be presented at the Ottawa Sports Awards are major honours for the year’s best male and female coaches, and male and female teams. Lifetime achievement awards are also part of the mix, along with individual outstanding athletes in over 60 sports, and teams that won a provincial championship or higher.

It’s quite possible that Groves may be giving the trophy named after her to another long-track speed skater. Twenty-two-year-old Ivanie Blondin had a breakout fall on the World Cup circuit, collecting her first career medals – silver in a mass start race, and gold and bronze in the team pursuit alongside Christine Nesbitt and Brittany Schussler.

See OttawaSportsAwards.ca and SportsOttawa.com for more coverage later this month.

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