She giggled. Standing on the infield at the Richmond Oval, waiting to take her place on the victory podium, Kristina Groves couldn’t help it. The roar when they announced her name as the winner of bronze in women’s 3,000-m speed skating was so loud, so sustained, so un-Canadian that she had to laugh. “It was wonderful. It was deafening,” she said. “I’ve never experienced a crowd that loud for Canada. I’ve raced in all sorts of places where it’s been that loud, but not for Canada. It gave me goosebumps.”
Forget the advance access to Olympic venues, or the extra millions poured into coaching, sports psychologists and “top secret” technologies, the true advantage of a home Games is just that—home. The stands are filled with friends and family, the crowds bedecked in red and white, and for the first time in a generation, Canada’s Olympians get to experience the full-throated support that fills the nation’s hockey rinks most Saturday nights, but never quite makes it to World Cup meets in far-off lands.
In the 3,000-m, the first medal event in what promises to be a hardware-filled two weeks for Canada’s female speed skaters, those waves of unconditional love seemed to lift Groves to the podium. The 33-year-old from Ottawa, twice a silver medallist in Turin, is a favourite in the 1,000-m and 1,500-m, but didn’t expect a top finish in the longer distance. Racing before the partisan throng, she covered the three kilometres in four minutes, 4.84 seconds. In third spot with one pairing left to skate—featuring the defending Olympic champion Irene Wust of the Netherlands—Groves had reconciled herself to fourth or fifth. But when the final times flashed on the scoreboard, she remained among the leaders, clinging to the bronze by just three-hundredths of a second. Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic took gold. Stephanie Beckert of Germany won the silver.
The bonus bronze sets Groves, who is racing in a team-high five events in Vancouver, on a course for as many as four medals, counting her specialties, and the team pursuit. And the performance, as well as the crowd’s enthusiasm, has Canada’s speed skaters believing that anything is possible at these Games. Clara Hughes skated one of the best 3,000-m races of her life, finishing fifth. Afterwards, the five-time Olympian was flying. “That crowd was incredible,” she said. “On the corners it just made me want to dance on my blades. On the straightaways it propelled me forward. I can’t even express what it felt like being in that tunnel of energy.” The 37-year-old announced firm plans to defend the 5,000-m Olympic title she earned in Turin, at the Oval on Feb. 24. “I couldn’t have gone faster [in the 3,000-m]. That is my ability at this distance. But give me five more laps.” Cindy Klassen, Canada’s lion in Turin with five medals, but this time skating on two surgically repaired knees, came 14th. The crowd’s cheers at the starting line brought tears to her eyes. Recalling the moment later, Canada’s greatest-ever Olympian cried again. “All the athletes that are representing Canada here, we can feel the support and we’re so grateful for that.”
But the tears in the Games’ first days weren’t all joyful. At the conclusion of the men’s 500-m, Jeremy Wotherspoon sat red-eyed on a bench in the infield, staring into the distance, even as the victorious South Korean (gold) and Japanese skaters (silver and bronze) packed up their flags and headed out to meet the media. He said he needed the time to reflect on what might have been. Returning from a broken arm, the 33-year-old from Red Deer has struggled all season. But after the first round, he found himself in fifth, with a realistic shot at the podium. The man who was behind him in sixth, Keiichiro Nagashima of Japan, skated his second race in a blistering 34.87 seconds to take the silver with a combined time of 69.98. Wotherspoon skated his second leg in 35.18, falling to ninth, with a combined 70.28. “I was just thinking about how today felt a lot better than the 500-m in Torino, but I got the same result,” he said. “I was wondering how that happened.” The disappointment was all too familiar to Wotherspoon. Still the world record holder in the 500-m, and the winner of more World Cup races than any other skater at that distance, he has never topped the podium at the Olympics. In 1998 in Nagano, he won silver. Four years later in Salt Lake City he fell and didn’t finish. “Things went so naturally for me for so much of my career,” said Wotherspoon. “The most disappointing thing is wondering if I have it in me anymore.”
But the torch has already been passed. Jamie Gregg, the 24-year-old son of former Edmonton Oiler Randy, and Kathy, a former Olympic speed skater, finished eighth. Four years from now in Sochi may well be his time. The crowd won’t sound the same, but he’ll know. Back home, sitting in front of their TVs, Canadians really do care. The echoes of a home Games will surely last that long.