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Clara Hughes Retrospective – The Ultimate Olympian

by Laura Robinson

August 02, 2012 (London, UK) – Even after 29 grueling kilometres and no medal at the end of the rainbow, Clara Hughes still has a killer kilowatt smile. It has been twenty-two years since she first tied on a pair of speed-skates or swung her leg over a racing bike and she has made an astonishing contribution to what it means to be a Canadian. She has put cycling on the map for so many years it is hard to imagine what the sport would have been without her, but she has done so much off the bike as well it is hard to know where to begin.

Hughes started her competitive speed-skating/cycling career in 1990. Early on she hung up her speed-skates to commit to bike racing full-time. She entered the Canadian sport history books three years later after sitting in second place in the women’s Tour de France for many stages, only dropping back because of a serious crash.

The next year she wore the yellow jersey for the first five stages before handing it off to teammate Anne Samplonius. A very close 4th place in the time trial at the world championships predicted what was to come; at the 1995 World Championships she took silver in that event.

Clara was stellar at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, winning bronze in the road race and time trial. The 2000 Olympics saw the women’s team marred by the personal coach of a teammate who destroyed the way in which the team was racing. She was 6th in the time trial and made the decision that fall to put her skates back on.

In 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games she took the bronze in the 5,000 metres. The Torino Olympics were her best – a gold in the 5,000 and a silver in the team pursuit. The Vancouver Games would see her add another bronze and then…she made the announcement; it was time to get back on her bike. A fifth place in the time trial at the 2011 World Championships showed she was serious.

The individual time trial on Wednesday was her last Olympic waltz. She will not contest another Games. “I don’t want to,” she said emotionally at an evening press conference at Olympic Park. “I don’t want to try. I don’t want to dedicate my life to this anymore. It’s been awesome, but it’s been so hard. For twenty-two years this has been my life. I knew when it was time to finish skating and I know when it’s time to finish on the bike and I felt it here. Honestly it actually brings me joy to know that – to feel that. You actually just do know.”

Hughe’s contribution to Canada and indeed the world is not actually measured by medals and wins. She is, without question, a national treasure. She described the 2012 Olympic road race as terrifying as the cyclists took an endless amount of tight corners in torrential rain and many went down.

But telling your country that you have suffered from mental health disorders and have been depressed could be much more terrifying. Bringing mental illness out of the closet is a gift Clara keeps on giving as one in five Canadians face similar situations. When people know one of the greatest athletes ever can talk about how the end of the rainbow disappeared; how even the end of the day seemed to disappear, then they just might have the courage to either help themselves or help others in similar need.

Hughes has also given funds, her time and her name to Right to Play-the worldwide organization that works with refugee children, which includes now, the Aboriginal children in Canada whose living conditions on many reserves rival any refugee camp. Her $10,000 win in Torino went to Right To Play and caused an avalanche of donations from those she inspired.

She also supports the Vancouver-based Take A Hike Foundation that is committed to helping at-risk youth find themselves and a path to a healthy meaningful life through experiences and challenges in the natural world. She donated the $10,000 she received for winning a bronze at the 2010 Winter Olympics to Take A Hike.

Clara is candid about why kids she has never met matter to her so much. She grew up in North Winnipeg with plenty of First Nation friends. But when she was able to get out of a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol when she figured out she wanted to be a speed-skater at age fifteen, her family had enough money and cultural currency to help her out.

That wasn’t the case for the children she grew up with whose only reality was poverty. She saw them slip through cracks to a life of abuse. She cares deeply that real change occurs. Her ties to First Nation and Inuit people have remained strong.

Hughes supports Right To Play’s work in Moose Cree Nation on James Bay in Ontario. She is also friends with Joey Juneau who started a hockey program for Inuit children in Nunavik, Quebec. They certainly did not forget her before the Olympics. “There’s so much potential for Right To Play in the Northern Ontario,” said Clara, the evening after her time trial. “The Aboriginal community in the north – we’ve had such support from the kids and the elders. Joey Juneau sent an email about the support.”

But there was more. When she and partner Peter Guzman, who is an American Indian with his family’s roots in Mexico, were kayaking in Great Slave Lake, they met other First Nation people. They gave Peter a caribou drum before he and Clara left for the Olympics. “They sent us a bit of water from Great Slave Lake too,” says Clara and looks at Peter, who had accompanied her to the press conference. “We had a little bit of water on the race course from Great Slave Lake. I really hope I can help bring sport to those kids – that’s will always motivate me. I hope to work with the people who are doing all the good things in this respect.”

There will be one more World Championships for Clara in September in the Netherlands, and then that is it – perhaps the greatest Canadian athlete ever will have left very big cycling shoes to fill.

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