September 15, 2015 (Toronto, ON) – A lot of hype hit the Canadian media when Open Heart, Open Mind, Clara Hughes’ autobiography was launched earlier in September. The focus of the headlines was on what amounts to three paragraphs in the candid book, which is a harsh and soul-baring chronology of her real life “behind the billboard smile” as Hughes so aptly puts it. Let’s get those paragraphs out of the way so we can focus on the incredible human-being known as Clara Hughes.
Hughes writes that in 1994 she was contacted by Canadian national team director, Pierre Hutsebaut, to say she had tested positive at the Road World Championships in Sicily, where she had placed fourth in the individual time trial. Hughes, 22 at the time, was “shattered” and “confused” writing that she didn’t even know what the stimulant ephedrine was, but checked the labels of vitamins, teas etc. of whatever she may have ingested. They came up blank. She wondered if it could have been a spiked water bottle, or a mix-up at the lab. Doping guidelines at the time were sparse and Hughes says she was told to keep quiet while serving a three-month suspension during the off-season.
Silent for twenty-one years; she says she didn’t have to reveal the positive dope test, but chose to disclose the information in her book. Hughes is adamant she has always been clean, but if people choose to think of her as a doper, then she really can’t do anything about it.
It’s a tough row to hoe; that’s what Lance Armstrong pled, as did dozens of other riders on his various teams and in the opposing peloton. Armstrong wrote more than one book. It was all a huge lie. The problem with focusing on the doping infraction alone is you miss the real Clara Hughes, her very dysfunctional family, mainly because of her psychologically abusive, alcoholic father; her descriptions of how her coach Mirek Mazur psychologically abused her and succeeded in hammering an eating disorder deep into body and soul which actually became a form of physical abuse; the “self-absorbed” life athletes end up leading; the “circus” she says cycling often was, and her continuing struggle with mental health that make her a more heroic person than do her Olympic and World Championship medals.
This is no “Girl Next Door Makes Good” tale. Open Heart, Open Mind is a well written, gut-wrenching, raw gift from a person who was more likely to be amongst the poorest children on the planet with Right to Play, in an Aboriginal community, or listening patiently to a fan unloading their own insecurities, than on the motivational speaker’s circuit telling people all they need is a goal, commitment and just work hard to reach their dream.
Hughes was raised in Winnipeg’s north end and hung out with a United Nations of friends. She and her sister became brats early on at school, telling us she felt no qualms about stealing from her own mother. In grade three she forged a note for cigarettes and was successful. A taste for smoking never really left – Hughes would smoke a pack or two and wash the nicotine down with enough booze to make her puke and black out if she made it back to her room – this while competing on the national speed-skating team.
She didn’t have to tell us any of this or other unpleasant aspects of her life. But Hughes is brutally honest about her strong self-destructive streak; she’s not hiding her mental health challenges in order to garner more gigs on the speaker circuit. Her commitment to writing out loud about how mental illness wrecked havoc on her family is highly courageous; so are her descriptions of Mazur, who apparently told her to “burn in hell” when she wrote him a letter confronting him with the abusive way in which he treated her. After winning two bronze medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Hughes describes her life with the following paragraph…
Exhausted and full of despair, I began drinking again and doing drugs. Smoking, too. I was often wasted, wandering around in a zombie fog, partying too much and staying up far too late. Instead of seeing myself as a triumphant Olympia, I had reverted to being that kid in the stairwell, guzzling whatever I could lay my hands on, consumed by misery, afraid to go home. My past still held me in its jaws, and cycling-with its stress, its commitment to pain, its crashes, and it crazy demand that I starve-was no solution.
In 1996, Canadian sport had not recognized the pressure on athletes to succeed – and still needs to do a better job – and to be responsible for a particular performance on a particular day, where a win or loss can determine either celebrating in the winner’s circle or the possibility of a downward spiral of self-hatred. It’s an immensely stressful world for top athletes.
Hughes is the latest in a lengthy line of athletes who have spoken up about abusive coaches and inhuman expectations in terms of fat percentage and extreme thinness in sport. She did not know how ill she really was until well after the ’96 Games.
Read this book; it’s important. Hughes says she hopes her honesty in her book helps rather than hurts, and prefers the measured pace of life with her partner Peter these days, though states, “What I want to do most now is to serve. To improve myself so I can share those improvements with others.”
Clara Hughes doesn’t have to improve one bit. She’s just fine the way she is.
Open Heart, Open Mind; Hughes Clara; Simon & Shuster, Toronto; $32.00; 227 pages.