It's a whole new Games now

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

Kristina Groves has no doubt lost track of how often she's seen the tape.

Yet every time she speaks to students at Calgary schools, every time she gets another glimpse of her 3,000-metre race at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Groves' reaction mirrors that of the youngsters in the classroom.

She's amazed.

But for a completely different reason.

"I can't believe that's me," the Ottawa native says about watching a 25-year-old first-time Olympian glide around the Games oval in Utah in 2002. "I'm still the same human being, I'm still the same person.

"But I'm not the same skater anymore."

When Groves toes the line in Turin, Italy, six months from now, the world will surely agree. Fresh off the finest season of her career, Groves no longer rates as a rank outsider on the global scene.

If anything, the bronze medal she earned in the 3,000 (her specialty) at the world championships in Inzell, Germany, in March offers tangible proof she'll carry podium potential to Turin.

NEW EXPERIENCE

Even if Groves, now 29, would rather not see it that way.

"(Salt Lake) was my first ever Olympic experience," she said. "I just wanted to skate really well and I did, for the level I was at then.

"I still want to have the best race that I can on the day (in Turin). I'm just at a different level now ... I'm going to put the effort into it to make sure I'm happy and satisfied with how I skate."

But Groves is aware how differently she's viewed now. The world bronze, and her first World Cup gold earlier in the season in Hamar, Norway, pretty much guarantees that. She's just trying to keep it all in perspective.

"I find the less I concentrate on winning, the better I skate," she said. "It's more about the process and the journey and that kind of stuff.

"(An Olympic medal) is not what drives me every day. But at the same time, it's exciting that the prospect for it is there and the potential (to win a medal) is there."

There's also plenty to accomplish before then. The Canadian team is just starting into early season training -- "we refer to it as boot camp," said Groves. In a few weeks, Saturday morning racing will begin.

Then it all gets more serious Nov. 12, when the first of four World Cups before Christmas is held. And it's a rarity for the long-distance skaters -- it'll be held right in their backyard at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, the same place they'll wind up the season at the 2006 world championships in March.

"This year is a dream for us, racing at home," said Groves. "That's really exciting for us. I've been on the national team for eight years, and we've had maybe two World Cups in Calgary.

"It'll be nice to skate at home for once, and not have to deal with jet lag and travelling and staying in hotels."

World Cup No. 4 also is circled on everyone's calendar. It goes Dec. 9-11, right on the Olympic ice in Italy.

"We went to Turin after the world single (distance) championships in March," said Groves. "The oval wasn't finished, but we wanted to see where it was, see the city and see where the (athletes) village will be.

"Nobody has ever skated there yet, so (the World Cup) will be an important step in preparing yourself for the Olympics."

Truth be told, Groves finds it a little hard to fathom the 2006 Games are a mere six months away. Salt Lake City still seems a little bit like yesterday.

"It doesn't feel like I've been waiting four years for it," she said. "Yet here it is already.

"It's amazing how quickly four years goes by."

And how much has changed.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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