A funny thing happened on the way to London. Some of Canada’s top female athletes were racing the guys, and beating them. It’s what they call in sport, “guys getting chicked”.
When I first decided to do an Olympic special for CBC Radio about this phenomenon I didn’t know where to start.
After all, there are so many outstanding athletes and so many amazing stories.
Then I tried to break it down into a number that always works for me in story telling – three.
And soon the choices became obvious. Clara Hughes, who is attempting what no other Canadian athlete has achieved; Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, who gave birth at the height of her athletic prowess; and boxer Mandy Bujold. Three extraordinary female athletes.
It begins in Atlanta
I have a bit of history with Clara Hughes, so let’s start there. No man or woman from this country has ever done what she’s attempting to do and success would make her Canada’s most decorated Olympian.
That’s impressive, but what Clara does beyond sports is just as inspiring.
I first met Clara 16 years ago at the Olympics in Atlanta. She had just won Canada’s first cycling medal at those games – and added another bronze medal a few days later.
The redhead lit up the room with her smile as she walked through the CBC’s Olympic offices to do one interview after another. The passion for her sport and her pride in doing something special for her country were easy to see. Most of us though had no idea the impact she was about to make on Canadian sports.
That year she was overshadowed by Canadian sprinters Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin who ran like the wind and beat the U.S. sprinting stars on a wonderful Georgia night.
It was when Clara Hughes switched gears from cycling to speedskating, that I saw first-hand just how unique and special an athlete she is.
At the Turin Olympics in 2006, she won the gold medal in one of the most grueling and impressive Olympic races I’ve ever seen up close – the 5,000 metres.
She spent every ounce of energy as she fought through immense pain to cross the line in first. When she did, the agony of the race caught up to her. She lay on the ice like she was going to spend the next 10 minutes throwing up. Some celebration!
When she came through the mixed zone where athletes pass through the throngs of reporters like sheep, she had already composed herself.
I was trying to do my French colleague a favour. He was on deadline and asked me to hold his recorder and microphone as well as my own.
I didn’t really have enough hands to do that and even worse his machine was having technical issues – it refused to turn on.
Just at that moment, it was my time with Clara. You only get a couple of minutes before the athletes are corralled to the next in line. So I started asking my questions.
As usual Clara gave a great answer. But she observed the worried look on my face as I tried frantically to get my colleague’s recorder to start working. Clara sensed what was happening. And a couple of minutes into her answer, she stopped and asked, “do you want me to start over.”
This truly defined Clara for me. In her moment of glory she was thinking about my situation. It didn’t surprise me that at the news conference that followed, she donated her prize winnings for the medal to the international humanitarian group Right to Play, an organization that helps some of the world’s poorest children have an opportunity to participate in sports.
Checking in with Clara again in Montreal this March proved to be just as rewarding as those other experiences.
I have to admit I was wondering, like a lot of people, whether Clara was hanging on too long with her attempt to go back to cycling – her original Olympic sport at 39 years of age.
What does she have to gain?
We went for lunch in this little restaurant Clara knew in Old Montreal. There, Clara explained how she felt she could push her body further than it’s ever gone before.
The early results show she may be right. In some training races in Arizona, she beat some male professional racers. She chuckled when she told me the story and explained they even have an expression in her sport. It’s called “guys getting chicked.” She had a good laugh and I had a good title for my radio documentary!
Not that any of this has been easy. She has had to transform and rebuild her body. The big legs and muscles that work so well for speedskating aren’t much help for an endurance sport like cycling where the body is taxed and put through immense pain.
Her longest event in speedskating was about seven minutes. Her longest race in cycling is three and a half hours.
In speedskating she used to always turn left. In cycling she has to sit on her bike in an aerodynamic position for hours at a time. Her body, which was a bit imbalanced, has to be realigned.
It helps that she considers herself a creature of endurance and thanks her good genetics.
She tells me she has a massive heart. It apparently has a high stroke volume, which basically means it pushes out a tremendous amount of blood, way more than the average person, way more than even the best elite athletes.
What this means is the longer the race, the more tired others get, the more energy Clara is able to muster.
This road to success is more than a physical battle. Clara has publicly spoken about her struggles with depression and a lot of her misery came from her life as a cyclist. She says it can be a cruel sport where the nicest people in the world tell you to your face you aren’t good for anything. Now she’s hoping to exorcise some of those demons.
Through our entire lunch conversation, Clara concentrated on every word and every question I asked. She has an uncanny ability to be present and give you undivided attention in a way I have rarely seen from any athlete. Listen to my full interview with Clara http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/Sports/Audio/1659794291/ID=2235495368
Just watch me
Priscilla Lopes-Schliep is another athlete who some might ask: are you kidding me?
At the top of her game and her event in 2010 – she became pregnant.
Unlike many athletes who she says would have called it a career, Priscilla would hear none of it.
She trained up until two weeks before giving birth to daughter Nataliya and went back to training five weeks later.
People questioned her – can you do it, are you sure? “Just watch me,” was her response. I’ve seen this look on Priscilla’s face before. It was around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Athletics Canada had targeted a handful of its stars for extra money to help them get onto the podium.
Her teammate, Perdita Felicien, was one of those athletes. But Felicien was injured and couldn’t compete.
Priscilla was not one of those favoured to win. She was there and was in fine form, but under less than ideal conditions. She was only able to get key training instructions from her coach, Anthony McCleary, through a fence.
Because she wasn’t one of the targeted athletes McCleary didn’t have the same access as the athletes who received the special funding. Then the two of them went on to prove everybody wrong.
Lopes-Schleip went out and won a stunning bronze medal, another highlight for me as I watched her jump up and down on the track as if to say, “I told you so.”
Her world has changed since then. When I went to York University this spring to watch her train she was surrounded by a team of experts. Their job was to help her find a fraction of a second here or there, enough to win her a medal in her 12-second race.
And she wants to show she can do it for all the mothers and for her daughter Nataliya.
I, for one, have learned you can never count her out.
Here is some of the material I gathered from Priscilla.
Priscilla has had to do something no male athlete’s ever had to think about. For some female athletes the struggle has been more basic, as simple as being accepted into a man’s sport.
She fills an entire room
My third athlete knows all about those struggles. All she’s wanted to do is climb into a ring and box. I, for one, wouldn’t want to stand in her way.
Mandy Bujold is not a huge physical presence at five-foot-three. Yet there’s something about Mandy that fills up an entire room.
I first noticed that while I was at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara Mexico last October. I was doing a story on her teammate Mary Spencer, one of her best friends.
They were training in a gym and Mandy was punching a tennis ball that hung from some contraption she had on her head.
That poor ball.
She packs a mean punch – so much so that I thought I would have to find out more about her when I got home.
I wasn’t surprised when both Mandy and Mary Spencer went on to win gold medals for Canada at those Games and were each other’s biggest cheerleaders.
I travelled to her home in Kitchener, Ont., to find out how she got into this sport that she learned as a child.
It started with her brothers who used to have a punching bag in the basement of their New Brunswick home. They got a kick out of watching her and her neighbour duke it out when they were about seven years old.
As she grew older her life often took a negative path. She was in with the wrong crowd and rejected sports.
Then the family moved to Kitchener and one day after school she ended up at a smelly sweat-filled gym. She was with a friend and they were the only female faces in the crowd.
Right away she took to the sport, just as she did years earlier in the basement of her home.
She’s often told she’s intense and fights like a guy. Her rapid punches and speed have surprised more than a few people.
She’s sparred with some hockey players who train in her gym in Kitchener. Some thought she would be a pushover and didn’t put on extra padding. They regretted it afterwards.
Mandy knows only too well the struggle it’s been for women to get a chance to compete in boxing for the first time at the Olympics.
The sport is officially recognized, but there are still some old boys who don’t think women should be let into the ring.
She’s been kicked out of a couple of gyms in Canada by people who weren’t comfortable with her training there.
She was hoping to prove to them in London that she belongs, but she suffered a devastating loss at an Olympic qualifying event in China. Now she may have to wait another four years for her chance.
For Bujold, it is just another hurdle to overcome.
Meanwhile her compatriots, Clara Hughes and Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, continue to push their bodies to the limit. And in so doing help change the very nature of their sports.
Follow Teddy Katz on Twitter @katzt.
Check out the radio piece it’s fantastic! http://www.cbc.ca/video/#/Sports/Audio/1659794291/ID=2235494924