On 6 October 2014, author Jeremy Freeborn interviewed Clara Hughes for The Canadian Encyclopedia. A six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, Hughes cycled across Canada in 2014 to raise awareness of mental health issues.
JF: I understand you experienced some personal challenges growing up in Manitoba. How important was it for you to be involved in sports during your adolescence?
CH: I got involved in a lot of delinquent activity when I was young. I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My dad drank a lot and was very verbally abusive towards my mother. They split up when I was nine. Basically, my sister hit the streets pretty hard. She did drugs and alcohol. I followed in her footsteps. So, I never had a sense of belonging or being. My mom was just doing everything she could to figure out how to start working and learning how to drive. She was 45 years old at the time. My sister and I pretty much went wild. I thought fitting in meant getting into trouble. Sport is something that pulled me out of that path. Sport changed me. It definitely fundamentally shifted the direction my life was going. It gave me a goal to shoot for and to be something really, really good: to be a speed skater and to reach the Olympics. That was the beautiful side of the Olympic Games. You don’t know any of the garbage [politics] about the Olympics until really you are involved in it. But that Olympic magic and the pursuit of human excellence at the physical and emotional level is really inspiring. I really connected with Gaétan Boucher when I saw him skate on television at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary. It changed my life. It led me to speed skating and later to cycling.
Sport also led me to the darkest moments in my life because some of it was really negative. It ended up being a harmful environment because it worsened the negativity and the feeling of emptiness that I had from a lot of the trauma and confusion while growing up. I think I will continue for the rest of my life to try and figure out how to deal with and how to digest and absorb [my experiences], and allow that struggle to live through me.
[But] without sport, I honestly do not know where I would be right now. In Winnipeg, I grew up on some pretty tough city streets. It is something that I really keep close to my heart. You know, I hold that resilience card close to my chest because where I grew up really gave me the strength and capacity and I think the character to always fight for what’s right, to always fight for what I want. Thankfully for me, it turned into something positive.
JF: You recently cycled across Canada to raise awareness for mental health. What were you the most proud of throughout your entire journey?
CH: You know, I think there were so many. My original goal of the ride was to bring the message of awareness of mental health and help reduce the stigma attached to mental illness all around Canada. But personally, [I think] it was just to really allow people to feel their voice was heard in their community. That, I think, was the proudest moment or series of moments during the entire 110 days. [It happened] so many times that it seemed that someone felt their voice was being heard for the first time. That doesn’t always mean speaking. It may mean just being present and being a part of something positive that was connected to their personal struggle and that is something that touched me deeply over and over again.
JF: How did Clara’s Big Ride first get started and were you surprised by the positive attention it received?
CH: I first had the idea while in Sierra Nevada, California, after I quit racing following the London Olympics . It was time for me to step into the unknown of life after sport, of being confused and terrified and wondering what’s next. What ended up being next was this big ride.
It started with my involvement in the campaign called “Bell: Let’s Talk Day” every year and being a spokesperson for that because of the struggle that I have had with depression in my life, particularly as a young athlete. But even more important was my family experience with mental illness. My sister has struggled for over two decades with bipolar disorder and deep depression. My father has struggled with alcoholism his entire life. I feel that family connection and see how the system really has failed not just my family, but so many Canadians. I just really wanted to extend the Bell: Let’s Talk Day to make it more than a day.
The way I can do that best is to use my bike. It is a great way to travel. It is something that breaks down barriers. It intrigues people. It inspires people. It creates a conversation when you are riding. I’ve biked so much. I’ve had strangers approach me and my husband Peter Guzman, and ask “Where do you come from?” and “Where are you going?” So, I thought the bike would be a great tool and why not make this a big ride across Canada. We kind of went zigzagging and took the long way everywhere. We took some of the smallest roads and visited 105 communities. We also travelled through the North of Canada. We rode the Dempster Highway. I just thought, “What if we can connect along the community level, what could that do for people and what could that do for Canada?”
My original idea was just Peter and me bike touring with our panniers [bike bag]. I pitched that to Bell Canada who in turn made it into something enormous. It wasn’t just Bell Canada, it was a number of corporate sponsors all across Canada that allowed this to happen and gave us funding, which allowed any funds raised to stay in the communities. I feel really, really good about that. We weren’t taking. I wasn’t asking for anything except connection wherever we went and really highlighting the many great grassroots initiatives that were happening across communities in Canada.
JF: I understand that many Canadians approached you during the Big Ride about some of their personal experiences with mental health and that these conversations inspired you to continue your heroic venture. What was the anecdote that had the greatest personal meaning?
CH: You know, there are so many. Even today, I looked on Facebook and had messages from people. I receive them all the time. One of the communities we went through was in Renfrew County in Ontario. What we did there — the awareness and fundraising — gave some funding to really small organizations. There was a mother who had lost her daughter to suicide on 22 September 2011, and who advocates for mental health and works as well to bring down the stigma. She thanked me in a letter, writing, “This was the impact you had. There’s a local article about a Blue Bike program that is going to [be organized here], [to] symbolize a stigma-free community and promote physical activity and movement for [health].” She said “You inspire me.” I wrote back and said, “You inspire me. This is amazing. You know we are strong together and nobody does anything alone. I want you to know that you are not alone. I now know that I am not alone.” She reminded me of that.
I received another message from a beautiful young Canadian girl in Saskatchewan who came out to my event in Regina. She had sent me a beautiful hand-written letter in 2012. She’s just a cool young girl who really struggles. These are the kind of letters I receive and it is so hard to receive them and not have an answer. She said, “I understand suicide because I feel there is no answer for me.” You know, to read that from a kid who is in university and has so much potential, but who is in such a dark place right now, [made me answer], “I’m not a professional. I’m not an expert. But I can give you love and compassion as a human being. Don’t give up. If all you can [do] today is connect to your own breath or walk and connect to your movement of walking or connect to your physical self, which I think connects you back to your emotional self... if that’s all you can do today, and it gets you through, try that. I have no answers. Don’t give up. You’re loved.” There are so many moments like that.
In one of the British Columbian communities we went to, a father was part of our school event. He had struggled with suicidal thoughts and intentions since he was a teenager. He kept it to himself, and somehow stayed alive and didn’t follow through with those strong, strong inner influences and feelings. As a father he said, “I have to talk about this because I want to live for my kids.” His son was in the audience of this junior high school. This man shared his real struggle of “this is what I am doing” and “I’m getting help and I’m not going to give up.”
It’s so powerful and I mean those are just a few things along the way. Those are just a few moments of interactions and encounters and connections. For me personally, there are hundreds of them. It’s hard to hear them because I want to say, “Do this and you’ll be better.” But mental illness is not as simple as that. The human chemical response, the being, the physical part of our brain and what happens to our brain is unique to each and every individual and I think we have a long way to go to understand what treatment and care and healing is when it comes to mental illness.
JF: During the ride across Canada, the weather did not always cooperate. What were some of the environmental challenges you faced?
CH: It was the biggest winter in decades in Canada. We started March 14 in Toronto. It was epic. It was cold. It was frigid. It was snowing and raining and sleeting and hailing. I mean, the weather gods unleashed everything they had on us! We were cool with it. Peter, my very good friend Burke Swindlehurst from Salt Lake City, Utah [who joined them for the first six weeks], and I were like, “All right, this is it. This is the challenge for all of us.” We are hard core. We take pride in never giving up. The elements were just another challenge to get through and to embrace. It was just great to have the best gear to ride in. We had the best bikes, the best clothing, everything. We had everything at our disposal and we really came to the conclusion after a week that we can pretty much ride in anything because we have everything we need to get through. That was something that just gave us confidence.
The weather was almost symbolic. I feel it was like the unknown and the unpredictable. It was different every single day and every minute of each day. That’s kind of representative of the mental health struggle. For most people, you just cannot figure it out. You can’t predict what it’s going to be. You just have to take it as it comes. You have to endure and get through and know the sun is going to shine at some point.
JF: When someone says you are a Canadian icon when it comes to amateur sport, what is your reaction?
CH: I’m not really comfortable with that because quite honestly I have been in a very privileged situation. Even when I got into trouble, I always had support there. When I wanted it, when I was open to it, when I asked for it, it was there. Everything really unfolded for me. I go to the North a lot and I’ve been to many Aboriginal communities where it is so isolated. That is my reality check as to what the struggle in my life was and what opportunities I had. I really could do anything I tried to do. I tried to be anything I wanted. If I wanted to be a rocket scientist, I could certainly try. I might fail, but I could try. No one was going to stop me. I feel like I had opportunity. I was lucky. I had the capacity to do it. In a lot of ways, I won the lottery of being born into the skin colour that I was born into and the demographic I was born into and most people don’t have that opportunity.
I think we have to be careful as to where we place people in terms of their results. I think Olympic medals are nice and success is nice, but when somebody wins something or wins a lot and is a jerk, it doesn’t really mean anything to me. I have done a lot with [my success], but at the same time I meet people who may not have Olympic medals or have the same sporting success that are way bigger or way better than I’ll ever be in my lifetime. I think that it’s weird to be called that [an icon] or be considered that. I don’t know. I just don’t see myself that way. I see myself for all my flaws and faults more than anything.
JF: How did you first get started as a high-performance cyclist?
CH: I was recruited by a coach named Mirek Mazur in Winnipeg. He was a Polish Canadian. He saw me skating in circles in -40 °C or something. It was a really cold Winnipeg winter night and all of the cyclists were training indoors on indoor stationary bikes above the outdoor speed skating oval. They needed girls for the 1990 Western Canada Games in Winnipeg that were coming up. They had some money to bring some girls and try them out in cycling for a training camp in South Dakota. I guess he thought I was tough enough so I got invited. That’s how bike racing began for me. I didn’t even know it was a sport. I didn’t know anything about the Tour de France or anything. But by the end of that first training camp Mirek was saying, “You’re going to be a world champion. You’re going to wear the yellow jersey.” I was like, “What’s the yellow jersey? What does that mean?” He created an environment of female athletes with the goal being the Western Canada Summer Games and we “kicked some serious ass” there. It was really fun and it really hooked me on the sport. I won money in races and that was pretty cool, but it was really the environment there and the community of sport that made me want to be a bike racer. I always knew I wanted to return to speed skating one day. It took me ten years but I did go back, and I went back [skating] for ten years and then went back to bike racing for another two years. It was quite the run and quite the ride. As hard as it was at times, every step of the way was worth it and made me who I am today. So I don’t regret anything.
CH: It was amazing to be in two different races [the road race and the time trial] and to be on the podium at the end. I didn’t really know what that meant and the significance of that at home. To go home, and actually feel how people connected to those moments, to that effort, to that pursuit. That was really special to see the impact and to make people happy for a moment. That made me feel good. It didn’t help me when things got really dark, but at the same time I think back to those moments of returning to Canada and just walking down the street and someone stopping me and say, “‘Hey, I saw you race. That was awesome.” I will never forget that.
Getting back to the present, about a month and a half ago, I was in Hamilton, ON, where I lived when I was training for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games. I was there spending time with a friend of mine who was dying of cancer. I was walking to the hospital, and a young man stopped me. He was an immigrant, a new Canadian, and he said, “You’re Clara.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You know, I always thought if I met you, I wanted to tell you this…” During the 1996 Olympics he had just come from Holland. His family was [originally] from Somalia. He was new to Canada and there was a lot of discrimination and he didn’t speak English. He said he felt really alone. Then the Olympics came on and he really connected to them. He really connected me with Canada. He said he would never forget me racing. He said I made him feel so good and proud to be Canadian. He said I helped him through a rough time. I thought that was so beautiful. This was 18 years later and this young man told me this and it was really special. Those moments resonate deeply.
JF: What was the major reason you made the switch from cycling to speed skating in 2000?
CH: I always wanted to go back. I wanted to become a speed skater, not a bike racer. So I had to. I just had to skate.
JF: You won your first gold medal in the women’s 5000m speed skating at the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin. How did it feel to win the most challenging speed skating event for women at the Olympic Games?
CH: It was phenomenal. I was not [physically] at my best. I had been sick before the Games but I was completely lifted up and empowered by Right to Play by connecting with children in the third world. I saw a documentary on Right to Playfrom Uganda the morning of my race. To learn of the struggles of kids, and to see the struggles be transformed to joy… When they were engaged in sport and play, it really resonated inside of me as to the struggle that I was facing because I didn’t feel I was skating well. I didn’t feel I was physically at my best because of the illness. I just thought if these kids can do that, I can do something. If I do something, I can do something for them. Honestly, that is what completely gave me the strength — the physical and mental strength to win that day. I knew I was going to win that night. When I won, not if, but when I won, I was going to do something for Right to Play. [After winning the gold,] I donated $10,000 to Right to Play. I also got a lot of other donations, almost $500,000, within a couple of months. It was just amazing because it was so much bigger than me. It was so much more than just winning.
JF: How meaningful has it been for you to be part of the Right to Play Foundation?
CH: It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. I am fully and completely behind and engaged in Johann Olav Koss’s vision of empowering children around the world through sport. Whether it’s educating them, bettering their lives, giving them a chance to live, to breathe, to thrive, to protect themselves and protect each other. It is just amazing. It is something that gave me the great gift of a gold medal in my life and something that I will live the rest of my life trying to repay to the children that I connected to.
CH: It was amazing to be chosen and just to feel that moment of not just representing, but actually being, Canada — being all walks of life, all colours, all realms of Canada in one moment when I crossed the threshold and was given the flag and walked into the opening ceremonies. It was as if I was this great nation. It was a beautiful moment, not just for me. I felt for everyone and I tried to give that energy and share that feeling as I walked and smiled and laughed. I just looked around and thought, “Wow, this is an amazing moment.”
JF: Following your Winter Olympic experience on home soil, you decided to return to cycling. Tell me about your experience at the 2012 Olympic Games in London and how it felt to place fifth in the road time trial at age 39?
CH: For me, London was tough. I had a broken back. I broke my back two and a half months before the Olympics and it still wasn’t healed. I broke the spinous process on my T7 vertebrae in a bike crash. I was terrified in the road race because it was scary. It was raining. It was wet. There were crashes and I thought if I crashed again, [it was] not going to be good. Then in the time trial, I was good [fifth place] but not great. But at the same time, I just felt that, “I am here and I have a chance. Isn’t this amazing? I can ride.” Retrospectively, I can say that the pursuit of London was really just to make the experience a better [one] than cycling had been for me [until that point]. I made it a really good experience for myself and for everyone around me. Something positive. Something encouraging and something non-toxic. That’s what means the most to me [looking] back — realizing I pursued it in a really good and meaningful way and that closed the chapter on sport in my life.
JF: What are your future goals when it comes to sport?
CH: I don’t have any. I just want to move. You know, I am a very proud and adamant recreational athlete, if you can call me that. “I move therefore I am” — I want to live by those words until the day I die.
JF: What is the greatest moment in your life and why?
CH: I don’t have a greatest moment. Every breath I have is a great moment because it makes me feel I am alive. Is there a reason I don’t have [just] one? There are too many.
JF: What Canadian has inspired you the most?
CH: I guess I have to say because of the profound impact he had on me, it would have to be Gaétan Boucher. It’s not because of the medals that he won or the champion that he was. It was because of his character, his fire and his passion that I and many Canadians really connected to. I connected to the fire in his eyes. It is a beautiful thing that has ignited so many, including me.
CH: I would tell them don’t limit yourself and don’t let others limit you, and just follow that incredible dream and that beautiful vision you have inside. Constantly revisit it because there are times it’s going to feel like it never existed, but it’s yours so don’t ever lose it.