By Shi Davidi (CP)
Over a successful career spent on the ice and on her bike, Clara Hughes has grown into more than simply an accomplished amateur athlete.
She’s an advocate for the environment. She’s a humanitarian activist. She’s a motivational speaker and engaged world citizen.
And now the 37-year-old is the face of Canada’s Olympic team as the flag-bearer for the Vancouver Olympics.
“I think she is the cream of the crop,” said Beckie Scott, the former Olympic cross-country champion who shares many of the same qualities as Hughes.
“Not just when it comes to what she’s accomplished as an athlete, but as a human being. She’s a gem. She’s someone who is truly remarkable in all arenas.”
The flag-bearer carries both overt and subtle messages about the image a country wants to project as it strides into the opening ceremonies of an Olympic Games and the Canadian Olympic Committee believes Hughes delivers all the right ones.
Hard work, relentless determination, dignified humility and a desire to impact the greater good are quintessential Canadian traits, and each is obvious in the Winnipeg native who now lives in Glen Sutton, Que.
“For me, and I think most of the team members would say, Clara as a human being represents what we’re trying to do as a Canadian team,” said Chris Rudge, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s executive director.
“And that is be very good at what we do, set very clear goals and objectives and want to win, yet not lose sight of the things that are as important as a human being as well. I don’t know of any athlete that embodies that in this country more than Clara does.”
Hughes hopes people will get that message when she leads the 206-person Canadian team into B.C. Place for the opening ceremonies on Feb. 12.
“I want people to be inspired that I’ve always strived for excellence and I’ve always gone beyond what anybody ever thought I could do, what I thought I myself could do,” she said.
“And I’ve allowed myself to be inspired, kept my eyes open and my senses open to inspiration around me. I’ve had people inspire me in my life that really showed me that is the way to live and I’d like to show that to people.”
As an athlete, few other Canadian Olympians are as accomplished as Hughes. With five career medals, she’s tied for second among Canucks with short-track speedskater Mark Gagnon and track star Philip Edwards, one short of long-track teammate Cindy Klassen.
Two of them, both bronze, were claimed in cycling during the 1996 Atlanta Games, the other three in speedskating. She heads into her fifth Olympics as the defending champion in the 5,000, and the silver she won during last year’s world championships at the Richmond Olympic Oval offers hope that she can deliver again.
But out of competition, Hughes has been just as impactful.
Four years ago in Turin, she donated $10,000 of her own money to the humanitarian group Right to Play, well before the Canadian Olympic Committee began handing out cash prizes for medals. She urged others to follow her lead, and some $400,000 was raised.
“I was in awe,” said Scott, who is also involved with Right to Play. “It’s really indicative of the kind of person she is. She kicked off one of the biggest fundraising efforts that Right to Play has had in its history, and … at the same time moved Canadians to look inward and be inspired to give and be conscious of people who don’t have the same opportunities and who do live in incredibly disadvantaged areas.”
Hughes did more than simply write a cheque. She went on trips to Africa and the Middle East to do some of the organization’s actual outreach work, which aims to use sport as way to improve the lives of children in poor and troubled areas.
Later in 2006, Hughes also began working with Nature Conservancy of Canada, Quebec Region to help raise funds for the preservation of the Sutton Mountain Range.
Unlike some athletes who shun the chance to act as a role model, Hughes has embraced it. Underlining that is her recent revelations of a trouble-filled childhood marked by underage drinking and soft drug use.
“I want young people to realize that when they look at us as Olympic athletes, sometimes we look larger than life, but many of us have histories,” she said. “Many of us have gone in bad directions and had lives that aren’t storybook beginnings. They might look like a storybook ending but the beginnings can be pretty rough.
“For me it’s really important to show young people you can turn your life around. It’s just the most crucial thing is to look for some kind of inspiration, something that means something to you that you can focus on. When you have that gift, and you have that mind set, you can do anything.”
The continuing search for new challenges is what has allowed Hughes to remain a leader in her sport through a switch from cycling to speedskating about a decade ago, and into her activities beyond, too.
There isn’t an ounce of complacency in her nor is there any sense she feels she has all the answers. She isn’t just open to finding new ways to improve, she’s driven by it.
“I look at every race I’ve done and I’ve won the Olympics but I’ve never felt like I’ve perfected a performance,” she said. “That’s what I work for, just to be better than I ever have been. I don’t have any control on how that compares to everybody else, but what I can focus on is just getting more out of myself than maybe even I know is there.”
That’s a goal Hughes has been pursuing ever since she watched the 1988 Calgary Olympics as a teenage girl in Winnipeg and fell in love with speedskating. She started soon after but a year later she switched over to cycling, a sport she quickly took to and made a name in.
Mirek Mazur, who at the time was coaching Manitoba’s provincial team, took her under his wing and became instantly impressed with his new charge. She followed him to Dundas, Ont., when Mazur took over Ontario’s program and it was under his guidance that she won a pair of cycling bronze medals at the 1996 Olympics.
“I didn’t really think much of her when I first met her,” said Mazur, who now coaches privately in Dundas. “But over time you could see how easy things were coming to her.
“It’s hard to find someone with such (work) ethic. When there was a plan to do something, she did it. She had questions, she was curious about things and she had dedication. When it was snowing she would ride beside me and the guys, or be the first one to go out.
“She’s a leader on an everyday basis.”
Hughes continued to cycle through the 2000 Sydney Olympics before she decided to pursue her initial dream of speedskating at the Winter Games.
While one might think a decade away from the sport would have hurt her chances of success in it, Mazur believes the cycling years actually helped her reach the upper levels of speedskating.
Her teenaged stint on the ice provided a technical base upon which to work, while the explosive power she built up through cycling helped put her on par with her rivals while she ironed out the kinks.
The results were quick to come. A bronze in the 5,000 at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics made her just the second woman and fourth athlete to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Games.
“She gained so much physically from cycling,” said Mazur.
That showed in 2006, when she won gold in the gruelling 5,000 and helped the women’s pursuit team to silver. The look of sheer joy on her face when she realized she had become an Olympic champion is an enduring image from the Turin Games.
That being said, the chance for a crowning moment on her career comes in Vancouver, where in a sense the Olympic dream born 22 years earlier during the Calgary Games comes full circle when she serves as flag-bearer and competes on home ice.
“It’s such an opportunity as an athlete with all the experience I’ve had over 20 years now, I feel like I get to put the best of everything I’ve ever done and ever learned into this huge opportunity, a home Olympics,” said Hughes. “It’s just exciting.”
And people are excited for her.
“As an athlete she’s as good as it gets,” said Scott. “I’m so proud and so happy for her that she’ll be carrying the flag, it’s really amazing.”
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