Brewer Oval churns out Canadian champ

By Dana Granville

It’s almost 40 degrees below zero at Brewer Park’s outdoor skating oval, but the Ottawa Pacers speed skating team is unphased by the frigid weather.

In fact, one of Canada’s champion speed skaters jump-started her career by battling these crazy temperatures on the same sheet of ice.

“I remember skating at meets with volunteers at the finish line to catch us in blankets,” said Pacers coach Christina Chenard of Ottawa-born skater Kristina Groves. “We’ve skated in everything, from rain to gale-force winds.”

“We weren’t allowed to skate if we had any exposed skin.”

Fortunately for Groves, the conditions were a bit better in Calgary earlier this month when she posted her best times of the season en-route to winning the Canada Post all-around Canadian championships.

Groves won her 1,500 metre race and placed second in the 500 metres to take the championship title. She will now focus on the all-around world championships Feb. 7-8 in Hamar, Norway after placing fourth overall last year.

Chenard, who skated with Groves for six years, says the Ottawa-born Olympian has toughed out almost every type of weather Brewer Park could throw at her over the years.

For her part, Groves fondly remembers gaining experience at the outdoor oval and its smooth ice, which is a big draw for speed skaters throughout the Ottawa area.

“There were times when the weather was gorgeous,” said Groves. “ And when it wasn’t, well, when you’re 12 years old, you don’t really notice. Looking back, I feel bad for the parents who were helping out at the meets. At least we moved around to keep warm.”

For Groves, the road to success was an uphill battle — literally. The Brewer Park Oval is known for a small incline on the uneven surface.

“Ottawa’s notorious for that hill,” she says of her old training facility. “No matter where you are, whenever you tell someone you’re from Ottawa they comment on our hill.”

Groves says her attachment to the ice at Brewer went deeper than just skating on it. She, along with her teammates, actually helped build it.

“It was fun to make the ice we were skating on,” she said. “We’d have a ball doing it, and then go play Pictionary at a teammate’s house to warm up.”

“It would be eight at night,” recalls Chenard. “We’d stand out there flooding the ice with giant fire hoses and freeze our hands off.

“We wanted ice to skate on, so we helped out.”

After seeing the sport on TV at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Groves decided she wanted to become a speed skater and compete in the Olympics.

“It was instantaneous,” she said of her Olympic goal. “It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it was always in the back of my mind. I always wanted to go to the Olympics.”

Groves applied hard work and dedication to the sport to make her way from long days spent circling the Brewer Park Oval to long trips around the world to compete in world tournaments and the Olympics.

“When I started out, I wasn’t very good,” she said. “I was actually pretty bad, but that didn’t matter. I thought I was good.”

Her former coach with the Pacers, Dave Morrison, agrees.

“She was average at best,” he said. “She’s really the poster child for working hard and sticking with it.”

Chenard also says that Grove’s work ethic was what set her apart. Many hours were spent perfecting her technique and making sure she was getting the most out of each stride.

“She was out there, working hard six days a week,” she said. “The only reason she wasn’t out on the seventh (day) is because the coaches wouldn’t let her.”

While Groves’ stature in the sport continues to rise on an international level, so does her influence over a new generation of local speed skaters. Both skaters with the Pacers and others from around Ottawa can circle the same oval she used to and draw inspiration from her success story.

“We have so many more girls than we did a generation ago,” said Chenard. “A lot of them are here because they want to be like Kristina.”

Groves has become the role model for local speed skaters.

“(Groves) worked hard, and is doing really well,” said 12-year-old Sam Morrison, Dave’s daughter. “Watching her makes me want to do some of the things she did.”