Kristina Groves: In awe of short track speedskaters

Before she became a four-time Olympic medallist and three-time world champion in long track speedskating, Canada's Kristina Groves gave short track a shot. Here, she explains why she wasn't cut out for it.

Olympic long track medallist wasn't cut out for sport

Kristina Groves was a ferocious long track competitor, but she describes herself as too courteous for cut-throat short track races. (Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images)

Not long after I first strapped on a pair of speed skates, way back in 1988, it became abundantly clear that I was destined for a life on the long track.

My desire to be alone on the ice — a propensity for solitude on the blades — and the simple purity of my might against the clock outshone the fast-paced and unpredictable excitement of the short track. Everyone kept getting in my way.

My temperament and disposition thrived on the calm and peaceful, albeit painful, challenge to skate the fastest. There was no need to think, react or strategize. Just go! Long track is all about efficiency, power and the ability to sustain enormous quantities of lactic acid. Its alter ego, short track, is all of those things plus agility, strategy and, most critically, instinct.

Geography and weather prevented me from skating long track for more than six or eight weeks a year until I made the move in 1995 to Calgary, where I could train full time at the Olympic Oval. So it was short track that filled the fledgling years of my long career — happily so, mind you, given that the alternative was not skating at all. The sport was still very young then, having only joined the Olympic program as a demonstration sport in 1988 and achieving full medal status in 1992.

In the many short track races I did, I remember very clearly how often I would anticipate that someone was about to pass me and swing wide to let them in. I was very courteous and therefore very easy to beat! My meekness was palpable, but I still just simply loved to skate. Those early days of short track were a lesson in eating humble pie and definitively shaped my attitude and work habits as an athlete.

In the 20 years since I was last a pupil of the short track, the sport has exploded in depth and development in skating nations around the world. Evolving beyond the "roller derby on ice" reputation so loathed by the sport’s best, short track is now arguably one of the most difficult, technical, physical, strategic and spellbinding sports in the world.

Element of risk

To see short track on TV is exciting. To see it in person is something else altogether. Standing at ice level, the sheer speed and intensity of the sport are extraordinarily impressive. The angle at which the skaters must lean, and the g-forces they must forcefully counteract, on a blade just over a millimetre wide, defies the perception of what is humanly possible. Add to the mix the thrill of a perfectly calculated pass, and the sport reaches an excitement level unmatched by many.

To be sure, the element of risk in short track is relatively high. With anywhere from four to 16 pairs of blades on the ice at one time, all contained on a 111-metre track and traveling at speeds approaching 50 km/h, the safety equipment requirements are severe. Full Kevlar cut-proof suits, helmet, neck guard, shin guards and kneepads are all mandatory.

Even still, injuries are common, and sometimes dangerous. They are mostly mild and not life threatening of course, but there have been severe cuts, concussions and broken bones. A cut femoral artery and nearly sliced-off nose come to mind. When the stakes are high, skaters are wont to make risky passes that aren’t always well executed, and the likelihood of a multiple skater wipeout is high. Indeed, the frequent crashes resulting from high-speed melees are part of the sport’s appeal. For those so inclined, that is. Short track takes a special breed of athlete to achieve success. 

Highly intuitive athletes capable of making smart decisions in mere milliseconds, and a patient but lightning-quick ability to make the right move at the right time, combined with high speeds and a lot of bodies (not to mention the physical requirements of fitness and technique), make short track a fierce and electrifying sport. It’s like chess on crack.

After two decades away from short track, toiling away on the much calmer long track, I’m amazed at the quality of competition that has developed in the sport. Emerging powers from Italy, the Netherlands, Great Britain and now Russia are increasingly challenging the strong Canadians, along with the ever-dominant Koreans and Americans.

I’m truly in awe of those who have mastered the short track, knowing that I never could have made it in this sport myself, being all arms and legs with no fighter instinct.

You don’t make it far in short track being meek and courteous.