George Johnson, Calgary Herald, January 18, 2013
CALGARY — Any speedskater capable of dwarfing the towering figure of Jeremy Wotherspoon must be something special indeed.
“Actually,” protests Kristina Groves, holding up an I’ll-stop-you-right-there hand, “I don’t know if that’s true. When we did a mock-up of the picture I chose for the banner, my body was, well ... enormous. I mean, enormous. But that picture is being zoomed out, a bit, so it won’t be quite as, uh, overpowering as we thought at first.
“But I still think it’ll be a lot bigger than Jeremy’s. I laughed out loud when I saw that. It just so happened that’s the picture I chose and I’m going to be towering over Jeremy.
“I mean, he’s only the winningest speedskater of all time. So it’s kind of nice to A) be next to him; and B) to just be larger than him.”
On Saturday, Groves joins a pretty exclusive group with the unveiling of her banner on the Olympic Oval Wall of Champions, in the lane right next to Wotherspoon.
“It doesn’t feel weird to me. It’s just such a great tradition they’ve started here,’’ she said Thursday, on hand to promote the sixth Essent ISU stop of the World Cup season this weekend at the Oval, “with the Wall of Champions, with the banners. I remember when I was skating, you’d be on a lap around the rink, look up, and appreciate what all those people had accomplished. They inspire you.
“So, no, it doesn’t seem weird. Not at all. It just seems ... wonderful.”
Oddly enough, for unfurling an image sizable enough to shove the all-time World Cup wins leader into the shade, not being larger than life — being down to earth, being accessible, being Kristina — is what sets her apart in the first place.
“She didn’t need to be on the front of a cereal box,’’ says the Oval’s Marcel Lacroix.
“She’s real, you know? Here was someone who came to Calgary as a junior skater from Ottawa and worked her way up, step to step to step, at this facility, to be an Olympic medal-winner.
“So for the Oval, her career is a model. What it tells young people is that when you come here and you put in the time, stay patient, you can accomplish great things. Kristina Groves did, and looked what happened. It’s not just a story you read in the papers. It’s possible. It’s truth. This is someone in the same building that you know, that maybe you’ve been training with, who became one of the best in the world, working toward that goal the way you are right now.”
Kristina Groves parlayed late-blooming skill (“I was not an obvious talent as a young kid”), a fierce desire/determination and, most significantly, an endless capacity for work into a career that won her international acclaim, four Olympic medals, three silver and a bronze, as well as countless World Cup and World Single Distance podium placings.
She was, in essence, the ultimate self-made star.
“When you don’t have good results as a kid,” she says, “that’s what you’re left with: A capacity for work. That’s all you have in your back pocket. If you don’t, you’re done. But I loved it so much and because I wasn’t very good, I kept telling myself ‘You’ve got to put in the work; You’ve got to push.’ I was never satisfied.”
Her longtime coach, Xiuli Wang, witnessed that inexhaustible drive to excel up close, from uncertain beginnings all the way to the glories of Turin and then Vancouver.
“We were a team. She listened. She was positive. She co-operated. She had patience. Great patience. She didn’t have the perfect skater’s body. She was skinny. There were a lot of people telling me they were surprised at the level she finally reached. But for 10 years with me, she worked hard. So hard. And that paid off.”
For Canada’s current skating star, Christine Nesbitt, Groves’ stubbornness, her fearlessness in challenging authority when she felt it necessary, coupled with a rare honesty in deferring when others were proven correct in those debates, was a wonderful example of how to best turn true collaboration into success.
“I don’t think Kristina ever got quite the stardom, the attention, that Cindy (Klassen) did, or Clara (Hughes) did. But she’s right up there with them. She’s someone who demonstrated to me what it takes to be a consistent athlete. You look at her results — when she started hitting the podium she was there all the time. Every race. That’s a testament to her mental strength and how well she knew herself.
“It might’ve taken her years to get to that point but when she did she totally knocked it out of the park.”
Out of the park and now, in retirement, up onto the Wall.
“No,’’ says Kristina Groves matter-of-factly, “I don’t have a hankering to come back here and skate again. Honestly. Sure the last year and half have sometimes been tough. I didn’t quit speedskating because I had a plan. I quit because I didn’t want to do it anymore. So there’ve been some stops and starts, some ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to do with my life?’ moments.
“But I really like my life now. I can do whatever I want. I can go to bed after 10 p.m. and it doesn’t matter. How great is that? When you know it’s the right time and it actually is, you don’t regret any of it. You don’t miss it.”
But when that (rather large) image is unfurled on Saturday afternoon, at roughly 2:45, as her banner takes its place in the lane right beside that of Jeremy Wotherspoon, a skater she so admires, mightn’t there be a sharp a stab of nostalgia, a small, wistful shiver of regret for what once was and can be no more?
“Well, I am a reflector, I guess,” Groves admits. “But, honestly, I won’t have a lot of time (this weekend). I’m working right up until the last race (for CBC) and then sprinting down and do interviews.
“This doesn’t mean I don’t cherish my years skating. I do. But honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I did. Maybe earlier on because it was really the end. But now I’m going back to school in May, I’m working for CBC. I go skiing all the time. I have other things that keep me busy and fulfilled.
“When you move on, you move on. And I’ve moved on.”