For athletes, it takes a lot of guts to get to the glory. A lot of strength, perseverance and tenacity.
When you’re a skeleton athlete, it also requires a lot of grit and mental prowess, after all you’re going down an icy chute, head first on a glorified toboggan at anywhere around 140km/h.
This doesn’t faze Grace Dafoe.
Coming off of one of her most challenging seasons yet, Grace has never been one to give up. She learns from every race, every practice and in everything she does, and then applies it to where it is best used to improve herself and how she competes.
Talking to Grace the first thing you notice is her energy, her passion for skeleton pours out of her, but skeleton wasn’t her first competitive sport.
The proud, born and raised Albertan did begin her career in sport on the ice, however. Her Olympic dreams began while carving her path in figure skating. That was the Olympian she inspired to be. She had her sights set on the podium, representing her country in the biggest sport event in the world, the Olympic Winter Games.
But as many athletes realize as they grow older, her love and passion for figure skating would only take her so far. She recognized around the age of 12 that if she wanted to fulfill her dreams and her goals of becoming an Olympian, she might have to find a new sport.
She finished high school and continued onto university where she obtained her Bachelor of Health and Physical Education in Physical Literacy which allowed her to learn more deeply about the complexities of the body, mind and soul and the importance that physical, mental and emotional health play on not only athletes, but every human being.
While continuing her education, Grace could not shake her thirst for sport and the love of competition still lingered. She knew she had to find something else to fill the void. But what sport could she start at 18? She thought all athletes that made it to the Olympics had to start as a kid. She was probably too old to start something new and still make it to the Olympics, right?
The beauty of many Olympic sports is that you can be of any age to start your journey and many sports like skeleton, bobsleigh, biathlon, or rowing are often a sport you start after competing in a different sport first. Like a second career, you can have a secondary sport. Just like Grace who started in figure skating but has now transferred her skills to become an elite skeleton athlete.
Watching the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver was when she realized this wasn’t just a dream but that she could actually do this. It opened her eyes to many new sports and gave her a new perspective on what she could achieve. She could make it to the Olympics if she put her all into it. She had a special feeling that the Olympic Games could very well be in her future, just within her grasp. During Sochi in 2014 she realized racing internationally in skeleton could actually be an option after sliding for 2 years recreationally. It was then, in November 2014, that she was awarded her first international races on the North American Cup Circuit.
Grace jumped head first at the chance to start something new, enjoying the thrill of a sport that had the potential to change her entire sport career, but also her life. There was no turning back from that moment.
She needed to buy all new equipment specially made for skeleton athletes, this included a special sliding sled. A run of the mill toboggan wasn’t going to make it down an ice track at about 5 G-Forces. Shoes that look like they have hundreds of tiny ice picks on the bottom, allowing athletes to run on ice instead of wiping out. Then the helmet, the most important element as a skeleton athlete for safety. Going down head first on that icy chute means the need for some heavy-duty noggin protection.
All of this essential equipment comes at a high cost as they are specialized to the sport of skeleton. As a self-funded athlete Grace has to purchase these things all herself, which can put her in debt very quickly and easily. She has to take these things into consideration as she continues her sport and that can be stressful and can take away from her focus on her Olympic dreams.
The significance of increased funding into the sport system is undeniable. Without more funding, Grace may have to choose between competing in the sport she loves, where her Olympic dreams are flourishing or to call it quits because she can no longer afford her equipment, her travel costs and her training. The increased funding provided by generous donors to the Canadian Olympic Foundation can change all of that.
Right now, Grace works multiple jobs along with being an ambassador and volunteering for sports projects and organizations like Classroom Champions – providing mentorship to elementary school children who live in underserved communities who face challenges like lack of resources, physical and mental health needs and personal development that can deter academic development. Grace is also an ambassador for Fast and Female, a program that empowers women in sport so that they can have a positive, happy and healthy environment in all sport, everywhere. As a huge advocate for children in sport and increased physical literacy she also volunteers with KidSport Calgary helping give children the gift of sport who may not otherwise get the opportunity. Her love of giving back to the sport community is unequivocal. On top of that she works, she trains, and competes, just to fulfill her Olympic hopes and dreams. At one point Grace was working upwards of 7 jobs just to fuel her sport career. Her passion and her drive are what push her to strive and thrive in the world of skeleton, but she does wish that she didn’t have to worry about finances as much as she currently does.
Currently, due to lack of funding, she doesn’t always make it to training camps that help her to gain the crucial experience she needs to advance in competitions. She also struggles to afford the technical and recovery needs she requires to continue on in her journey to the Olympic Winter Games. Being an athlete requires an incredible amount of training and recovery time in order to optimize the body and the results on the track. Grace is also not considered a full-time athlete because she cannot afford to focus solely on her sport. That doesn’t stop her from dreaming big and pushing forward to Beijing 2022 and beyond.
As sliding season has once again come to an end, Grace has turned her focus to training, healing her body and learning how to optimize her power to get the results she needs. She knows that physical health, emotional health and mental health all must be at their strongest in order to be in peak performance. Sport never ends for her. It keeps her going. Keeps her strong. Keeps her focused. Grace is never one to give up and always one for a challenge. With her heart set on Beijing and her dreams on the horizon, this fast, ferocious female is only just hitting her stride when it comes to skeleton.