Kristina Groves, one of Canada’s fastest women on two legs, won a world championship, shared in a world record and earned 18 world championship medals as a long-track speed skater.
But the 34-year-old Ottawa native did not use those powerful legs to aim any kicks at the concussion that halted her career a year ago.
Groves departed the sport at a news conference in Calgary on Wednesday, without any bitterness that her long career was over or that a concussive head injury had wiped out last season.
She stopped short of recommending that successors wear head gear to protect them from concussions in the future.
“One of the main motivating factors [in staging the farewell news conference] is I wanted to be really clear that I’m not retiring because of the concussion,” said Groves, who fell in Berlin in November, 2010. She smacked her head on the padding against metal rails surrounding the track.
It was the same World Cup track where teammate Jeremy Wotherspoon had suffered a broken elbow and Mike Ireland had a dislocated shoulder in 2008.
“In all the years I’ve been a skater, I’m the only person I know that’s got a concussion from long track speed skating,” Groves said.
“They way I fell and circumstances surrounding it ... it’s just Berlin. In short track, people wipe out all the time and get concussions. It’s accepted ... it’s part of the game in that sport. ... If I’d fallen that way in Calgary or any other rink, I most likely would have been okay.
“It’s not a huge issue. I look at hockey and football and these guys are smashing their heads hundreds of times a game. It’s fair the [concussion] issue is as big as it is in sports like that. ... In long-track speed skating it’s honestly not a big issue and I’m not going to champion it. It was bad luck, a bad wipeout.”
Rather than dwelling on the concussion, Groves opted for the day to be a celebration of a long career.
“I’m fortunate to pursue the dream I had from a young age ... and to discover the tools that I had to excel at a sport. I wasn’t a standout as a kid. I was skinny, awkward, slow and didn’t win a lot of races, but I knew how to learn. That’s what characterizes my career. I worked incredibly hard. ... I just milked it all in, from people in the sport, from myself, from my coach, from racing. ... I just tried to get better.
“I cherish a lot of the races. Some stick out ... the world single-distance championships in Nagano when I won five medals, and my first world championship. No one had ever done it before and no one’s done it since.
“I’m thankful that [the injury]came at the end of my career and did not prevent me from achieving my goals or derailing my career as a young athlete.”
Groves won a silver medal in the 1,500 metres and bronze in the 3,000 at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., the third and fourth Olympic medals of her career. She won a world championship in the 3,000 metres in 2008 and set a world record in pursuit with teammates Christine Nesbitt and Brittany Schussler.
Groves has trained for the past 16 years in Calgary’s Olympic Oval, most of it under coach Xiuli Wang.
Groves said in a blog posting earlier this month she occasionally still suffers post-concussion symptoms, “but I’m 99 per cent back to normal,” she said in a phone interview. This past summer she didn’t engage in traditional training, but rather a variety of different activities – mountain biking, hiking and repeatedly jumping off the dock at her family’s cottage.
“My decision stems from a combination of feeling completely fulfilled by a long and successful career and the desire to pursue other challenges in my life,” she said.
Groves turns 35 in December. She chose as an 11-year-old to chase the sport because of the success of four-time Olympic medalist Gaeten Boucher.