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Kristina Groves Headshot

What Drives an Athlete?

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When I close my eyes and drift among the long history of all the races I've ever done, a very small handful shines through more brightly than the rest. I swiftly and easily recall the feeling of those rare moments, as it is forever carved into my bones and coursing through my muscles.

The recollection of these few superb races is made all the sweeter when I look back down the long road I took to earn them. Unquestionably it was longer than most and yet, when watching the television broadcast of a 2004 World Cup 3,000m race in Norway where I won my first medal -- a gold -- I was utterly offended when the commentator said, "You have to wonder if Kristina ever thought she would win a World Cup race."

My indignant offense aside, it was in fact quite a reasonable comment for him to make considering that very long road. I raced World Cups for seven years before I won that first medal in Norway. Seven years. Many people have since asked me why I kept with it for so long without ever winning. They would say, "How could you just keep plugging away, never winning, for seven years?"

Jean-Philippe LeGuellac from Shannon, Que. may find himself facing the same questions now after he stunned the biathlon world last week, capturing his, and Canada's, first ever World Cup victory after nine years of racing on the national team. His own road long and winding, LeGuellac is back this season from a draining bout of mono following a promising sixth place finish at the Vancouver Olympics.

I can't speak for Jean-Philippe, but I never once asked myself such a question. It simply never occurred to me that seven years was a long time to wait. The joy I felt skating did not emerge from victories, but rather from pursuing them. It took long enough to learn even that but now, looking back, I marvel at my patience.

LeGuellac has his own story and long journey to the top but I can absolutely relate to the supreme joy he must have felt when he learned he'd earned that first win. That it took longer for him makes all the hard work seem especially worthwhile and the satisfaction all the more sweet. Patience is indeed, a virtue.

What is it that makes some athletes persevere while others give up? What drives an athlete at all? Given sufficient physiological and technical capacities, the ability to persist over time eludes some but not all. It's of course impossible to know if an athlete will 'make it' until they actually do but, in my mind, the root of this perseverance is planted in four simple things: a love of the sport, the desire to improve, being satisfied with small, incremental improvements and patience. In a word -- grit.

The time it takes to become the best can seem like an eternity. From the outside it appears unfathomable that someone would voluntarily subscribe to such a life. It takes a special kind of attitude to find the simple joys and appreciate small steps forward within the endless struggle to the top. Those who have it don't find patience difficult at all.

Today we live in a world of instant everything -- food, career, money, victory, happiness -- we want it all now. The concept of working towards something for several years and overcoming seemingly endless obstacles to achieve a goal is not as pervasive as it once was. It's a sad truth and it makes LeGuellac's victory all the more impressive.

In sport, as in life, we don't always learn much about ourselves when things are going well or when they come too quickly. It is through the long struggle that we emerge stronger, smarter and wiser. Things rarely go the way we hope but finding those simple joys within the daily toil softens the bumpy road and keeps the wheels rolling.

Countless athletes have won early in their careers, with little understanding of why. Some continue to win, while others fade away when the results do too. But those who climb slowly, stubbornly, patiently, they arrive simply when they are meant to arrive, no matter when that happens to be.

And so, I tip my hat to Jean-Philippe LeGuellac, his historic first victory in biathlon and the mountains of patience it took for him to arrive. One day he will close his eyes and float amid the hundreds of races he's done in his career and easily remember this beautiful, stunning first victory -- it is now carved into his heart for life.

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