A bonus bronze

Kristina Groves captures 3rd in the 3,000 metres. And just like that, Canada is on a roll.

Do you want to know what home advantage sounds and feels like? It starts with a low rumble like an approaching subway train. Then it builds to a roof-shaking roar, like a jet breaking free of the runway. And even when it recedes, the imprint lingers, like a wave pulling back from the beach.

This afternoon at the Richmond Oval, Canada’s speed skaters got their first taste of what such unconditional love and support could mean to them. And the country got its first gift in return—an unexpected bronze in the women’s 3,000-metre from Ottawa’s Kristina Groves.

The 33-year-old is racing in five events at these 2010 Winter Games. She is a legitimate medal favourite in the 1,000m and 1,500m. Her role in the pursuit event should bring her and her teammates another piece of hardware. But few—and probably not even Kristina herself—really believed that she was going to find the podium in the 3,000m.

“I knew it was going to be a really strong field,” Groves said as she stood clutching her victory bouquet in the bowels of the stadium.  “There were 6, or 7, or 8 girls that could have been on the podium today. I had the best race I could have today and this is more than I expected.”

Not that it was easy. By the time Groves hit the track, Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic had laid down a blistering 4:02.53 performance on Richmond’s sticky ice, which as it turned out, was the gold medal-winning skate. Paired with Germany’s Stephanie Beckert in the second-to-last race of the day, Groves gamely tried to match that pace, and was sitting in the silver position heading into the last 400m lap. But in the back-stretch she faded, dropping to third with a time of 4:04.84, .22 seconds behind Beckert.

The final pairing featured Ireen Wust of the Netherlands, the defending Olympic 3,000m champion, and Daniela Anschutz-Thoms of Germany, another podium threat. Groves and her teammate Clara Hughes, who finished fifth with a time of 4:06.01, sat together on a bench in the infield, intently watching the lap times on the giant scoreboard, and dying a thousand deaths.

“Going down the last straightaway I saw Daniela and I thought, oh she’s going to get me for sure,” said Groves. “I thought I was going to be fourth or fifth. I was so shocked when my time held up. It was just such a cool feeling to go from fourth or fifth to bronze.”

When Anschutz-Thoms time flashed on the board—4:04.87—Groves screamed, through her hands in the air and then grasped her head in disbelief.

The difference between a bronze medal, complete with a downtown victory celebration tonight at BC Place Stadium, and what would have been a heart-breaking fourth-place finish was just three-hundredths of a second.

Afterward, the always-smiling Hughes was certain the roar of the home crowd was worth at least that much time, if not more.

“It was incredible,” she said. “On the corners it just made me want to dance on my blades. In the straightaways it propelled me forward. It was beautiful…I can’t even express what it felt like being in that tunnel of energy.”

(Hughes is also convinced that the home field will tilt things her way in the 5,000m—the race she won gold in four years ago in Turin—on Feb. 24. “I couldn’t have gone faster today. That is my ability at this distance. But give me five more laps.”)

Both Groves and Hughes were warming up when the first Canadian racer of the day—Cindy Klassen—was introduced. The shower of affection for Canada’s greatest-ever Olympian, and the winner of five medals in Turin, was impossible to ignore. (Klassen had a promising start, but faded badly in the final laps, finishing 14th in a time of 4:15.53.)

“When I was sitting putting on my skates I heard them announce Cindy,” said Groves. “It gave me goose bumps just listening to the crowd. 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 was wonderful. It was deafening.”

She’s right. Now, just imagine what it will sound like when Canada wins gold.