Kristina Groves: Close Encounters with Steel Poles
(Canadian speed skating ace Kristina Groves checks in with her latest edition of The Grovesline on the Road to the 2010 Winter Games. She writes here of how Aldous Huxley and a much too close encounter with with a steel pole while skating at the Richmond Olympic Oval have reminded her of the importance of mindfulness. Her motto may well become: "Attention. Here and now, boys. Attention." (Groves is a supporter of Right To Play and Clean Air Champions.")
When I was home in Ottawa at the end of March for a week of rest and recovery, I happened one day to spend a few moments scouring my parents’ bookshelves with the intention of taking some books out on loan to help occupy my mind throughout the upcoming season. The shelves are packed with all kinds of classic and contemporary titles, very few of which I’ve read, most of which I have not. These same books have been on these same shelves for my entire life and I tend to recognize all of them, not for their titles, authors or literary acclaim, but more for their cover designs, colours and graphics. Strangely, even though I was a fanatical reader when I was a kid, I rarely ventured to these shelves for my fix. I figured now might be the time to actually read some of them and, considering I will need to fill the odd hour or two this year with some restful downtime, this would be the perfect prescription.
I borrowed about four or five books. Notably, ‘Late Nights on Air’ by Elizabeth Hay, winner of last year’s Giller Prize, and ‘The Age of Reason’ by French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. When my Dad asked me what I picked, I mentioned these as well as ‘Island’ by Aldous Huxley. He replied with, ‘Oh, heavy one’. This one caught my eye because many years ago I read ‘Brave New World’ by Huxley and enjoyed it tremendously.
‘Island’ is the first one I picked up. Within minutes I found myself going back to the beginning and starting over. And again, a few pages in I went back to re-read paragraphs, two, even three times more. I put the book down. The next day I started it again. I made it a few pages further, and slowly felt I was adjusting to the writing and absorbing at least a small amount of what I was reading. Still, I did not get very far, and far from feeling hooked, like when you can’t put a book down and spend hours devouring every word to find out what happens, I was simply confused and a little defeated.
The one bright spot for me amongst the early pages was a little nugget of a lesson about being mindful. On the island of Pala, Huxley’s utopia off the coast of India on which the story takes place, mynah birds had been trained to fly around squawking, “Attention! Here and now, boys. Attention.” Early in the book, the injured main character flows in and out of consciousness, wondering what he is hearing. We learn later on that the birds were so trained to remind island inhabitants to be mindful of the here and now, to be present, to be in the moment: To pay attention to attention. I liked this part, and even though I had no clear idea of what else was going on, this point struck a chord with me, as I am at the least mindful of trying to be mindful. (This is the stage you might get to before you can actually claim to be truly mindful.) So, I heard the mynah birds in my mind, and it helped me through my daily doings a little more mindfully. It unfortunately did not help me much in getting through, or even getting, ‘Island’.
I plugged on, barely. I started to avoid reading because I found this particular read to be a little stressful. Eventually I would give up, postponing ‘Island’ by instead starting, and finishing, ‘Late Nights on Air’ within days.
All the while I was in Richmond, B.C. for our first stretch of training there. Being back on the ice so early in the season, the earliest ever, and being in a new training environment, in addition to having some trouble kicking a stomach bug I picked up at our training camp in Tucson, left me feeling a little out of sorts. Our second day on the ice, I did not feel too well in the morning and briefly considered staying home to get some rest. But being the kind of athlete I am, I didn’t, even though in my aching gut I knew I probably should have. Lesson number two – listen to your gut.
That day I stepped onto the ice and skated a few easy laps. This time of the year is sometimes a good time to make changes to equipment, tweak blade positioning, etc. My coach, Xiuli, suggested I move one of my blades just a smidge, to help me achieve better blade placement on the ice. I resisted at first, having no feel on the ice yet, but relented and moved it for that practice. The first couple of laps felt technically fine, but physically I was still off. I skated up to Xiuli and told her as much, ‘I feel tired, my energy is low and my brain is just not here right now. I’m not focused.’ Having said all that, I started another set of easy laps, my brain in a fog.
As I exited a corner and started on the straightaway, the culmination of three factors came into play leading to a fairly unfortunate end. One, as mentioned previously, my brain was M.I.A. Two, I caught my left outer edge, not yet used to its new position, meaning it took control of me and took me down. And three, my fall trajectory put me in the path of one of the tall metal poles bolted into the gym floor situated on the inside of the oval. These poles are used to hold up the tall netting which surrounds the entire floor and prevents the basketballs and volleyballs from ending up on the ice.
It happened so quickly, even though I was skating what I would refer to as, ‘really, really slow.’ Being on the inside lane gave me no time to react or move out of the way. I could only shriek in fear as I slid towards this giant pole. I don’t even know how I hit the pole, but thankfully I did not hit with my head or any lower body appendage. Still, I was so mad!! Repeatedly I swore, ‘who put those *$#%ing poles there?’ I was the third skater on the National Team to fall and crash into one of these poles.
There is no other rink in the world set up like this, and admittedly they take down the poles during competition, but concerns raised when the poles were installed fell on deaf ears. I came away with a sprained wrist, of all things, and a kinked up neck and shoulder. Otherwise unscathed, I was undeniably very lucky.
The alarm bells rung throughout the oval staff and immediately plans to solve the problem were put in place. We are now protected from the poles and netting by a line of mats, the same ones used to line the outside of the track. Genius!
So I ended up with a few extra days off and some easy training, which is probably what I needed in the first place. And although the poles were indeed an unnecessary hazard, and although I probably shouldn’t have moved my blade so early, in the end the biggest fault laid squarely on my own shoulders. I was not paying attention to what I was doing. I was not connected with my skating. I did not heed Attention! I was not Here and Now, Boys! Those words rung sorely through my mind as I recuperated during those empty days in my still, hot apartment. How lucky I had been, and how easy it is to lose that edge, the edge that keeps me from such incidents on a daily basis. Moment to moment, if I am not connected with what I am doing, I am doomed.
And so, yet another lesson learned. Thankful for this experience, I am more aware, more conscious and more present in what I do.
Maybe when I pick up Huxley’s ‘Island’ again I will get it. Maybe all I need to do is. Pay. Attention. Here. And. Now. Boys!