Going out on top: George Grey calls it a career after taking home three gold medals at nationals
In a town mostly known for its alpine sports champions, George Grey has helped put Nordic skiing on the map both locally and nationally. As he crossed the finish line in Canmore last week for the last time in his competitive career, Grey was, needless to say, a little misty-eyed as he embraced his father in a show of thanks for helping him through a world class career.
Grey closed out his eleven year run of international racing in the true spirit of a champion. On the March 12th weekend at the Haywood Nationals in Canmore Alberta (Grey’s adopted home) he finished with a golden hat trick, taking first place in all three of the distance races, a new first for the racer on his last day of competition.
“When I was skiing to the finish, I just kept thinking of all those people that have been so supportive of me throughout my career. From coaches, to friends and family and sponsors and wax technicians,” said Grey. “Today is the end of an amazing chapter in my life, and the start of an exciting new beginning.”
Last spring, following an outstanding performance at the Vancouver Olympics in which Grey and teammates made Canadian Nordic history (8th place in the 30km pursuit and 3 Canadians in the top ten) Grey knew that the 2010/2011 season would be his last. That news wasn’t officially released, however, until just before nationals last week. After nearly eleven years on the national team, two Olympics and five world championship appears, the time was right for Grey to step back from racing and into his new role as a father and student.
“I’ve been on the national team for a decade now and I’m looking forward to new challenges in life,” commented Grey over the phone from Canmore. “I have a new boy to add to our family, and I want to be around more for him as well. There’s also other factors. I felt like last year at the 2010 games I reached my potential. I don’t know if I could do any better than that and I feel like I accomplished a lot of my goals in my career at the Olympics. I’m happy move on and happy to embrace new challenges.
Grey was not content to simply mail it in for his final races. With a host of friends, family, national team coaches and supporters–some having travelled long distances to be there for him–Grey put the hammer down and walked away with three more gold medals to add to his trophy case.
“It was an emotional race knowing it was my last highly competitive race in cross country skiing. I wanted to put my head down and ski as well as I could and ski with my friends and colleagues for the last time in my competitive career,” added Grey.
Several days later, the fact that he won’t be ramping back up for the fall hasn’t fully set in yet. In fact Grey’s father–his number one supporter from the time he first put on a pair of cross country skis–may be the most emotional about the retirement. As Grey crossed the finish line for the final time, his father was waiting for him in the finish for a supportive and emotional embrace.
“I guess I was feeling like, ‘So this is what it feels likes to be retired. This is it’. I don’t know when it really hits you. I don’t think it’s really hit me yet. When I crossed the line my dad was there and he’s been with me at my side the entire way through my ski career since I was a very young youngster. I think it’s hard for him to swallow that I’m retiring and he’s not sure where it leaves him because he’s put so much into my skiing as well. It was emotional to give him a hug at the finish line and we were both a bit misty-eyed.”
Grey’s final season, prior to going out on top was one of the more difficult years in his career. Rehabbing following knee surgery, getting back into top form was a challenge but one met with the vigor that has carried him through a successful career. Throughout the past season Grey fought and worked hard to get back to top form. Having reached that peak once again, Grey had thoughts about continuing on but knew in his heart the time was now to focus on family, studies and whatever the future may hold.
“I know I can still do it and I know I could make the Sochi Olympic team but for me the timing is right. It’s time for me to be home with my family and to embrace new challenges and look for a new career path. I’m going to embrace my studies and get some school work done. At the same time if there is opportunity in sport, cross country skiing or other, I’d jump in with that opportunity to help out and share my knowledge. I’ve been doing a decade of world cup racing. I’d like to stay in cross country racing and help out various teams at races or camps while studying at the same time. “
Grey is currently studying securities with an eye towards entering the investment/wealth management world as his next challenge. That said, his true focus is on being the best father he can be to his new son.
Able to now look back on his career as a whole, Grey thought about what his current self might say to his younger self at the beginning of his career for advice.
“When I was younger I was a bit of a hammerhead and I pushed myself an incredible amount. What you learn with age is that the more experienced athletes and the ones who generally get the better results, they are more in tune with their body, more patient and you know it’s the fine tuning that counts, not hammering yourself into the ground. You’ve got to be smart enough to step back a bit and say, ‘okay, I need some rest’. My first five years on the team I wouldn’t allow myself any rest. Whenever I had any energy I would be using it out training. My results started improving when I started realizing that.”
That training and experience ultimately paid off for Grey who was able to realize his childhood dream of competing in the Olympics–twice. Getting there wasn’t always an easy pursuit; at times Grey was the lone member of the Canadian World Cup Nordic team. He battled not just himself, not just the other races, but also anonymity in a country where hockey and alpine skiing have always reigned supreme. Apart from the individual and competitive achievements, perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments for Grey and the national team as a whole was bringing respectability and attention to Nordic skiing in Canada.
“I’ve been on the team for eleven years on the international team. I’ve seen it when we’re at some pretty low places. We were once described as Canada’s most anonymous amateur athletic team and now we’re getting more press than alpine. We have world champions, we have guys that are wining stages on the World Cup and the Tour De Ski. I’ve seen it from 10 years ago when I was the only guy on the World Cup for a period of a couple of years and just scoring results in the 40s and 50s and sometimes in the 30s, which was considered a very respectable result. Now we’re at such a level where any result outside of the top 10 is just not good enough. It’s been incredible to be a part of that rise and seeing cross country get to such a level in our country. We’re one of the most respected teams on the World Cup now because we’ve come so far in such a short time.”
Grey credits much of his success to his solid early start to life in Rossland and is eternally grateful for the people and places in the Kootenays that supported him throughout his journey.
“Rossland and the Kootenays are great. Everyone has been so supportive and so many people ask after me. There is just such a general excitement for amateur sport. What a great place to grow up and take part in so many activities. It’s no wonder so many great athletes and people come out of the Kootenays with all of the great terrain, support and different clubs helping young athletes. I hope to give back to that and I know I will. I fully want to share what I’ve learned with the new up and comers.”
In thinking about giving back Grey offered up a bit of advice to the young aspiring Black Jack racers perhaps hoping to follow in his footsteps one day.
“A small piece of advice is to not worry if you are winning at a young age. Be patient. It takes long time to develop for some people. I was never an early bloomer. I was often in the middle of the pack in my races as a youngster.”
Bloom he did, though, and through strong family and community support, a drive to succeed, a passion for competition, natural ability and plain old hard work Grey managed to live out the dream that so many kids have.
“When you’re young you always have that Olympic dream as many young kids do. I guess now I fully realize that I did make that dream come true and it wasn’t just a lofty goal that may or may not happen. It actually came to realization for me. Things can happen if you chase your dreams and anything is possible. I’m from a small town and big things happen when you start chipping away at it.”