Determined Slider Works Herself into Position for Beijing Bid



Article by Scott Cruickshank.

Till the age of 18, figure skating served as her go-to sport. She enjoyed it, despite realizing she would never rise above the club level.

No matter. Because all the while, Grace Dafoe had a hunch that something else would one day enter her athletic orbit.

Meaning she was always on the look-out. And other activities did pique her interest.

At a Canada's Sports Hall of Fame camp when she was a little girl, kids were told to pick a sport and make it part of their names. For a week, she was known as Bobsledder Grace.

Getting older — while coming to terms with her ceiling in figure skating — she considered track cycling, "but I do not like bikes." Perhaps speed skating, where some of her figure-skating chums had "organically" transferred.

Dafoe remembers thinking, "What else can I do? What other sport can I do?"

On the horizon, thankfully, was what she refers to as her period of "serendipity" — a perfect storm of circumstance that tugged her into the world of skeleton. She jokes that there had been "about 17 things" catching her attention.

"Everything came together ... so many moments. There was so much floating around."

At 16, for instance, Dafoe marvelled at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. In particular, she had been enthralled by one contestant — Jon Montgomery, the charming gold-medal winner. "That was the awareness of what skeleton is."

Her focus narrowed. She had already determined that, at five-foot-seven, she was too short for bobsleigh and that, well into her teens, she was too old to take up luge.

While attending Mount Royal University, she was coaching Learn To Skate at WinSport at Canada Olympic Park, headquarters of the skeleton crew.

More happenstance? The son of an acquaintance of her dad's was destined for the Olympic skeleton squad. From that connection, she could glean insight.

Heck, looking back, there had been a skeleton racer gracing the cover of her Grade 10 science textbook.

In January 2012, fate's guiding hand led the Calgarian to sign up for Passport to Sport, a program through which she would get to give skeleton a whirl. Guess who was running the show? Some guy named Montgomery.

This was no high-calibre tryout, though. Simply a run down a mild "tourist" route. Starting near the bottom of the track, newbies careened through only a few corners before levelling out. "They basically said, 'Hold on and don't do anything.'"

Even truncated, the trip was tantalizing. Like being inside a washing machine, according to Dafoe. "A unique feeling."

In addition to the sensation of hurtling through an ice tube — head-first without brakes — skeleton's element of precision was appealing. After 15 years of being at the mercy of figure-skating judges, she would answer to only the clock. Negotiating whisker-wide margins of error sounded like fun.

"I have a technical mind ... hundredths of seconds (making a meaningful difference) is something that I really like," said Dafoe. "It's so cerebral in a sense — it's really just you and your equipment. I'm a Type A personality — I like to control everything.

"In hindsight, I made the right choice."

Now, nine years later, is there a happy ending in sight? Possibly.

Dafoe, entering her third season as a national-team member, received notification in May that her name was on the "long list." In other words, the 28-year-old is eligible to race her way onto the Canadian roster bound for Beijing and the 2022 Winter Games.

"I'm a little bit of a dark horse ... but why not?" Dafoe, sitting at a picnic table in Bridgeland, said between sips of a late-afternoon decaf. "I have always been, 'Oh, I'm just happy to be here.' Now I'm like, 'No. I'm here to make a little bit of waves and just do my best and not have any expectation.' You've come this far, so why be scared now?

"I've always wanted to go to the Olympics. I always wanted to be an athlete. I didn't think it was going to be this sport. But here we are."



As much as skeleton ticked all her boxes, as much as she fancied this new challenge, it hasn't always loved her back.

Take 2012-13, her very first season.

"Fun fact — I crashed in every provincial race I took part in," said Dafoe.

For real? "Yeah, every one. I either crashed or injured myself and pulled out of the second run."

Near the end of that year, she flipped and slammed so hard that she couldn't bend her arm. From that wipeout came a souvenir.

"This is gross, but I actually had this floating hematoma of old blood that ended up in my elbow," said Dafoe. "Then, the first run of my second year, I hit in the same corner and it exploded. Then it went away."

Booboos aside, her fascination of skeleton remained high. And after watching a World Cup event in Calgary in person, after watching the 2014 Sochi Olympics on television, her appreciation got cranked to new levels.

"I was like, 'You've got to go all-in on this,'" said Dafoe, who grew up in the southeast neighbourhood of Sundance. "Well, not 'all-in' because I still wanted to finish (at Mount Royal University)."

The following season she was asked to join North America's Cup, a developmental circuit. After convincing her MRU professors to extend a few deadlines, she ponied up 500 bucks, got into a van with the rest of the team, roared to Park City, Utah, and took part in her first international event.

The schedule featured two stops in Calgary — she won one of them. "It was awesome." She ended up third overall on the year-end standings.

Completing her health and physical education degree and swallowing the consequences of being a self-funded athlete, Dafoe spent the 2016-17 season overseas on the Europa Cup. She began to make occasional appearances on the Intercontinental Cup, the rung directly beneath the World Cup.

Boiled down — she was awfully close to plunging into skeleton's marquee stream.

Then?

"I had a couple crappy seasons."

She points to injuries, plus a misguided assumption that the next step was going to come easily. Meanwhile, she was chewing through her mid-20s.

Sealing her fate in 2018-19 had been a glaring preseason failure. In the 30-metre sprint test, one of skeleton's indicators of success, she was unable to meet the standard. "And I was basically pulled out of this pool of athletes who were on track to make the national team."

Not even allowed to slide in the selection camp, Dafoe was reduced to forerunner — testing the track before the real racers. A disappointing turn. "Kind of a letdown.

She contemplated quitting before eventually coming to the conclusion that she was not done with skeleton.

Still in her way? That dastardly roadblock, the 30-metre sprint.

In the spring of 2019, she rang Les Gramantik, the Calgary-based coach who's worked for years with Canadian track stars, and told him: "I need you to teach me how to run this sprint standard."

Accepting the challenge, Gramantik happily punished her three times per week. Repeated sprints. Core workouts. Medicine-ball regimens.

At the do-or-die camp — July 14, the day before her 26th birthday — Dafoe cleared her mind. Knowing that she'd invested the sweat, she walked into the Olympic Oval. She lined up on the blue rubber track and, on her first of three attempts, did it — running the distance in 4.2 seconds.

"That basically did the magic thing where they plunk you out and put you in the prospect pool," said Dafoe. "It was definitely a long time coming, an eff-yeah (kind of moment). I went out with my family to the Stampede that night, watched some chucks, went for some drinks."

She cackles. "Then it's, 'Oh my god. This is a place I've never been before. What's next?' It was just another level of shit I had to prepare for."

Dafoe had another strong dryland camp in September. Then, following the trials in Whistler, B.C., she was elevated to the national development team for the first time.

Her feel-good story, however, didn't include a fairy-tale finish. Before the 2019-20 season could conclude in typical fashion — with the Canadian championships in late-March — "the whole world shut down" because of the pandemic.

Which left Dafoe making do with rumpus-room workouts and outdoor ad-libs.

She was sidetracked for months, like everybody else in the world.

Frighteningly, this past spring, she joined another club — those infected by COVID. An elite athlete in her 20s, she was flattened by the virus.

"Unlike anything I've ever felt," said Dafoe. "I felt so horrible. I was having trouble breathing. Don't get COVID. It sucks. And, '10 out of 10, I would not recommend it,' would be my Yelp review. To be absolutely decimated by it, laying in bed, not having the energy to sit up, it was a lot.

"There were so many thoughts at night, 'Am I ever going to be OK again?'"

She rebounded, choosing to use the scare as a "reset on life," re-prioritizing proper amounts of sleep, re-grooving healthy habits.

Only weeks later, Dafoe hustled back into training.

While grinding toward the next round of off-ice standards, she made sure to find time to monitor the Tokyo Olympics. Which, she discovered, carried a new vibe, thanks to her national-team status (even if it is a winter one).

"It hits different ... I relate just a little more to them, even though I'm not at that level, that Olympic level, yet. You see the wins, losses, and you live it with them a little more."



Dafoe is keenly aware of what's now around the corner — and she doesn't need to rely on a daytimer crammed with entries or a series of emailed reminders.

Her subconscious is always there to spill the beans.

"I just had my first back-to-sliding horror dream," she said. "You know, you have that dream when you're standing naked in the front of the class on the first day. For me, they're clearing the track and my sled is in pieces or I can't pack all my luggage together. It happens around this time of year every year.

"When those start coming back, it's, 'Oh my god, it's soon.'"

For her winter's schedule, determined by Sept. 20, there are two possible destinations — Whistler for national-team centralization or Beijing for a pre-Olympic test event. She is hardly rattled by life's uncertainty.

"The last couple years have taught me to expect the unexpected," said Dafoe. "Nothing can faze me. When you say you're throwing everything and the kitchen sink at someone ... COVID was my kitchen sink. If I can handle that, I can handle anything."

Already she's proven that she can shoulder full-time training and full-time work.

With Classroom Champions, a non-profit company based in Calgary, her boss happens to be Steve Mesler, a gold-medal bobsledder from the 2010 Olympics. Dafoe and her team provide educational content for students and support for teachers across North America.

Still, there's no ducking the cold reality of being an Olympic hopeful, whose adventure, in large part, is out of pocket.

Dafoe provides an aside to illustrate her attempts at resourcefulness. A couple of times, in the hopes of securing funding, she attended Royal Bank Training Ground identification camps. Yet, despite already being a skeleton athlete, she wasn't funnelled by talent appraisers into sliding sports. Instead, she was pegged as a rugby-sevens candidate. She laughs. "I'm the biggest wimp on earth — I knew rugby was not for me."

To make ends meet, she has held down a range of jobs — including a dog-walking gig that ended abruptly the day she was attacked by a husky in her care. "So many weird different things," she said. "Taking any money stream that would come my way."

Because, as she points out, you cannot buy a sled at Canadian Tire.

A custom rig from England cost her $10,000. For a set of runners — the stainless-steel strips mounted to the bottom of the sled — she shells out $1,000. She has five pairs. Her helmet — "Some dude makes them in his basement in Germany" — set her back a grand. Shoes, which wear out regularly (despite MacGyver-like patch jobs), are a bargain at $250 a pair, only because the maker is local.

Since she needs to travel with all that gear, baggage fees alone are nearly enough to break her.

Sometimes she needs to pay rent in Whistler (since there is no longer a track in Calgary). There are bills for chiropractors, physiotherapists, strength coaches, push coaches, track coaches.

"It adds up pretty quickly," said Dafoe, the recipient of a 2018 Calgary Booster Club endowment. "The last time I did the math, it's $15,000 to $20,000 a year — not including living expenses. It's expensive."

These days, for a starving athlete (literally spinning her wheels), social media can come in handy. For, on one frantic race day, she struggled to drive up Whistler's mountain roads because of icy conditions. Later, she posted a picture of her predicament. "Then this Canadian company DM'd me: 'Hey, we can ship winter tires right to your door.'" A sponsorship was born.

But, active as she is on Instagram and Twitter, her online platform isn't intended to function as a cash machine. "It's been a way for me to express who I am."

Dafoe cohosts the podcast "The Face First Podcast," with bobsledder Alysia Rissling, part of a partnership with KidSport and Sport Calgary. She's also a big booster of the Fast and Female charity.

On a regular basis, she tends to her website — gracedafoe.ca — offering frank updates about her career and life.

"I just want to be a positive example in our community, in the world," she said, "and show that being an athlete is a valid choice."

Mission accomplished. Because nearly decade after embracing the sport, Dafoe is still standing. Still sliding. Still smiling.

Which is saying something.

"There's not a lot of people around from when I started," she said. "They would come out for one or two years and (decide) it's just not sustainable to put your life on hold." Dafoe herself went charging the other direction, choosing to wrest control of her world.

Creating, from scratch, her support crew. Hiring personnel on her own dime. Shoehorning commitments into her calendar. Evolving her brand through social-media channels.

Make no mistake, there is only one CEO of Team Dafoe.

"I'm like the team manager of myself, which is kind of crazy," she said. "I'm the driver of the bus. I coordinate and wrangle everyone. I've had to build my crafty network. It takes a lot of work, but I believe I'm better for it. I also know so much more about me now."

"Even if I don’t finish, we need others to continue. It’s got to keep going without me."

Terry Fox