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Olympian Kristina Groves wants speedskating to get greener

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CALGARY - Groves struggles with the environmental cost of being one of the fastest female speedskaters on the planet.

The 32-year-old from Ottawa wants a gold medal at the 2010 Olympic in Vancouver. She doesn't want to ignore the world around her while she pursues it.

"It is tough to combine because our focus is performance at all times and almost at all costs," Groves said. "I still justify certain things saying 'I need to do this because I'm a speedskater."'

Like others on the Canadian speedskating team, Groves set up an apartment in Richmond, B.C., near the Olympic Oval to give her a home away from home when she trains there.

"I'm buying stuff, some of which is new and some of it is used, but it's creating a whole other pile of stuff," she said. "This is the best thing for my sport and my career, but I still have another apartment full of stuff, right?

"Last year I flew to Europe, I came home for six days and then I went back to Europe. Not only is it (staying there rather than flying back and forward) better for the environment, but we're going to save a ton of money if we don't let that happen."

Groves was the World Cup overall champion in the 1,500 metres this season and would have been world champion over that distance if she wasn't disqualified for touching a puck on the dividing lanes during the race in Richmond.

Some aspects of speedskating are difficult to green, but Groves and her teammates have found ways they can lessen their environmental impact.

Athletes have a vested interest in clean air and water because it goes hand-in-hand with health. And if they're not healthy, they're not going to win.

Groves and Canadian teammates Justine L'Heureux, Brittany Shussler, Justin Warsylewicz and Kyle Parrott struck a sustainability committee last year for Speed Skating Canada.

With help from Sean Maw, an SSC director and Green party politician, the group studied ways the organization could reduce its environmental footprint, without compromising performance. Travel, which is the big environmental bogeyman, competitions, meetings and national team clothing were their areas of concern.

"What we want is that, in all the decisions we make as an organization, to include the sustainability idea and just have it be a factor in some of the decision making, but with the interest of never hindering performance or participation," Groves explained.

Because their committee is new, their recommendations have yet to be implemented. Groves feels SSC is open to greener practices because it gave its blessing for a sustainability committee.

Team clothing is an important issue. New team jackets don't have to be wrapped in plastic, she said. Instead of shipping them through SSC's head office in Ottawa, the jackets could be sent directly from the manufacturer to Groves in Calgary where she trains.

"A lot of the clothes we get, instead of getting 10 T-shirts, we get five, but they're organic cotton," she added. "They could be made in Canada. Most people on the team would be willing to get less stuff if we knew it was good quality and had less impact."

World Cup races don't have to distribute dozens of results CDs to athletes and coaches because those results are posted on-line, she continued, and food served to volunteers doesn't need to be in Styrofoam dishes. A compost bin isn't an expensive addition to volunteer or athlete lounges.

Calgary's Olympic Oval eats up power to light and refrigerate it. That's a hard one for Groves, but she points out hundreds of thousands of people use it annually to live healthier lives.

"You balance out the environment and what this facility has done for the sport of speedskating and the community," she said. "People come here and use it. We can't just sit on the couch and not move and say 'I will have no impact."'

Travel is problematic because Groves must fly to Europe for competitions. She addresses it by buying carbon credits through the David Suzuki Foundation.

Groves calculated her carbon footprint for a typical season and included her household living in it. It added up to about 12 tonnes. Groves then got out her chequebook.

"I paid 391 dollars American," she said. "I hummed and hawed about doing that because I could have used that money to buy a new fridge.

"I'm not doing this because I want the money back. I say 'I do this because I take responsibility for this."'

Carbon credits are controversial, but Groves researches where her money goes. She didn't want it to go towards planting trees that aren't cared for and die.

She estimates she rides her bike 90 per cent of the time and drives a tiny Honda Fit when weather forces her off the bike. Also, there are three compost bins behind her condominium complex.

She's a campaigner for David Suzuki's Play It Cool program, in which Canada's elite winter and summer athletes make changes in their lives to reduce climate impact. Groves also speaks to schoolchildren about the environment through Clean Air Champions.

"I'm not in any way saying I'm a perfect environmental steward," she said. "We all do our bad things and good things. But it's raising awareness and saying 'these things should be considered.' We can make changes that won't affect our performance and will reduce our impact."

Once her speedskating career is over, Groves may take her environmentalism to a higher level.

"I'm probably known on the team as a bit of a tree-hugger," Groves said. "My ultimate dream is to build an off-the-grid house somewhere down the road.

"I read about a straw bale house in high school and ever since then I've wanted to build one."

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