HORSLEY, England — Clara Hughes is not larger than life, in person, at first.
She is five-foot-nine, yes, and her bright red hair tumbles off her head to her shoulders, and you can spot her a mile away, walking in the shade of a hedge in suburban London. But when she is not talking and engaged, when she is thinking of something else, she’s like anybody — her face is like a light bulb that has been turned off, and is waiting for the switch.
And when she is asked a question, she is a beacon again, after all these years. She is 39 years old and still burning inside, just enough to be an Olympian for the sixth time.
“My father’s from England, my ancestors are here,” Hughes said Wednesday, four days before she cycles at her first Summer Olympics since 2000, racing in the women’s road race and time trial. “I feel at home being really pasty and pale, and red hair — I feel very ordinary, and I kind of like it here.”
It must be strange for her to feel ordinary. Perhaps it is even a relief. Hughes is coming to the end of one of the world’s defining Olympic careers — two medals on the bike in 1996, four more in speed skating over three Winter Olympics. Only Cindy Klassen has won as many medals for Canada, and nobody else has ever won multiple medals at Summer and Winter Games. And at 39, she is back where she began, with all those miles behind her.
“No, I had no questions if my body could do it,” she says, when asked. “My body can do anything. It’s a matter of if I was motivated, and if I still had the discipline to apply myself, and to maintain the focus I have in my life. I didn’t know if I still had that, and it took about six months post-Vancouver to make the decision, to realize that I still had that capacity within me, and not only did I have it, but I could improve on it. And that’s really what brought me back, because I felt I could improve upon myself, and on what I’d done.
“I know that you just know (when it’s over), because I knew when I skated across the line in Vancouver after my 5,000 metres that I would never race again. I knew it in my heart, and I knew it inside of me, and I think it’ll be the same on the bike at the Olympics. There really are so many things that I have the opportunity to do that have deep meaning in my life, that I’ve put on hold to continue to be an athlete. There’s no sacrifice involved, there’s no compromise really involved, because I’m doing what I love.
“But there are definitely other things. This isn’t something I have to do; this is something that I have the gift of doing.”
“It took about six months post-Vancouver to make the decision, to realize that I still had that capacity within me, and not only did I have it, but I could improve on it.”
She wants to continue her work with Right to Play — she donated the $10,000 bonus from her bronze medal in Vancouver to the charity — and to further her work with Northern communities, particularly with First Nations ones.
“In Canada we have a history of ignoring the plights of Aboriginal people,” she says, “and I would really like to connect with the kids more. (Sports is) a beautiful, magical thing that touches kids. I’ve seen it with Right to Play, and it’s something that I think we can exploit greater in the North.”
But that’s later. For now the roads are narrow and shaded lanes, under a forest canopy or bordered by hedges, and that is where Hughes is riding, until they move into the Olympic Village in a couple of days. She is thinking of her dear friend Randy Starkman, the Toronto Star amateur athletics writer who died suddenly earlier this year; she is competing here in his honour, carrying him around. She does not have the sprinting power of her younger teammates, Joelle Numainville and Denise Ramsden. She may wind up working for them, to win for Canada.
But then, that’s all she’s ever done anyway. Hughes talks about sport in much the same way she talks about nature — like it is something sacred to her, like it is the best of all things, and she glows. Now she talks about unleashing everything she’s ever built within herself, since she was a teenager in Winnipeg, drinking and smoking and utterly lost. She says, “I’m in this moment now where I get to try to do it one more time, and give myself to something like an Olympic race. I’m just so motivated to try, and to see what’s possible.”
That’s Clara Hughes, all right. In Vancouver, she says, she found her perfect race only after she stopped trying to skate it. “I beat myself up day after day on the ice, thinking I didn’t feel, I didn’t float, I didn’t fly, I didn’t glide, I didn’t do anything right, and it wasn’t perfect. And one day I said, ‘Screw it, I’m just gonna skate.’ And then the perfection happened.”
And here, she is going to try to do that same thing on her bike. After everything, we are going to find out one more thing about this marvellous citizen of ours, this marvellous woman. We are going to find out whether she is ready to let go.
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