BY STEVE SIMMONS ,TORONTO SUN
FIRST POSTED: WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 01, 2012 01:18 PM EDT
SURREY, ENGLAND – What better place for the Canadian queen of Olympic sport to walk away than just steps from the palace in Hampton Court where Henry VIII once lived: A fitting ending for a remarkable athlete of cycling and speed skating royalty.
Only Clara Hughes cared more for the Henry VIII analogy than she did for the all the astonishing history that surrounded her.
When asked about what it was like to race for the final time as an Olympian in this setting so full of history, she answered: “It feels like someone chopped my head off and then stuck it back on. That’s how much my head hurts right now.’
The head can stop hurting after Wednesday. But before it, for reasons known only to the ultra-competitive Hughes, she apologized to Canada. She said she was sorry after finishing fifth at the age of 39 in the cycling time trials, in her sixth Olympics and her second sport — or is it her first? She said she was sorry and she said it earnestly, because she believes after all these Olympics and all these podium finishes, this is all she had left in the end.
She could give no more in what is known as The Race of Truth. She wanted one last great hurrah — a medal, maybe — and she wasn’t far off. Hughes finished fifth, the kind of ending she saw missing something in this storybook setting, only she knew the truth. She road 29 kilometres in the women’s individual time trial, did it in just over 38 minutes, missed out on a bronze medal by less than 32 seconds.
“Three or four riders were better than me today.”
At this time, at this age, with this body — she didn’t bother to tell anyone she has fractured her vertabrae in a crash before the Olympics — that was the difference.
“It was the best I had,” said the Canadian icon. “I can’t stand here and make any excuses. I was fifth place today and that was the best I had in my legs, in my heart, in my head. I’m disappointed because I always expect more out of myself. But when I look at my effort of what I did and what I put into it and my approach, it was everything.
“I felt good. I was just focused on my effort and what I was doing. It felt good. Good in a sense that it felt like hell. It’s a time trial and it was 38 minutes of suffering but, in a sense of what my effort was, I suffered, and that means it was a good thing … I knew today, I knew in the last week, the last month, I’ll have this last chance to race the Olympics. I’m really proud of what I did. Sorry, if anyone feels disappointed.”
Sad, if anyone feels that way. Pathetic, really. For sixteen years, almost all her adult life, in six different Olympics, in five different countries, in numerous events in two very different sports, all she has been is a champion of what is left of Olympic idealism, a smiling, heart-warming, uplifting, uber-competitive advocate of the power of what sport can be at its best. It changed her life: Sometimes, it changed ours.
The last race wasn’t just a last race for her. It was the end of years of torture. For some reason, she selected sports that require beating up your body. She said she wasn’t athletic enough to run or play in team sports. Cycling and speed skating were her best options. And she was emotional before the race, emotional during it, emotional after it was over.
“I had a lot of people in my heart these whole Olympics,” she said. “I was inspired. I was inspired by the potential and by the chance and by the opportunity. And I gave it everything I had and it just wasn’t good enough.
“Believe me, I wasn’t here just to have a good experience (at the Olympics). My good experience is emptying myself on the course … I had a great race. My power was awesome. I took every corner fast as I can. I rode smooth. I rode strong … Honestly, there were just people better than me. So I wasn’t good enough. That’s the bottom line.”
That gnawed away at her, finishing fifth, not getting to the podium, even though she was third at times throughout the timed and tortured event. But it didn’t take away her sense of circumstance. Sometimes, the story tellers make more out of the end of an athlete’s career, just not in this case. Hughes made sure to take in so much of this Olympic experience but in her own personal way.
“What I’ll remember more than starting and finishing at Buckingham Palace (road race) and starting here (Hampton Court Palace) is, I’ll remember the people and their energy here. It’s just like the Vancouver Olympics. That’s what I’ll never forget more than anything.
“This is beautiful, but what’s more beautiful is how many people were out on the course and it reminded me so much of Vancouver. They weren’t just cheering for the home team. They were cheering for everyone. There was no much cheering going on out there and so many little kids waving flags. I loved that.
“I’m just really, really, thankful I had to the chance to do this one more time. That I was good enough to represent Canada. Unfortunately, I wasn’t good enough to represent Canada on the podium (there she goes, apologizing again) But I can be really proud of what I did.”
The way Canada should be proud and appreciative of her. This may be the last we see of Hughes skating or riding a bike — other than a professional team obligation or two left — but it won’t be the last of her as a public figure. She has too many interests. She has too many goals. She wants to brings sport to places where there isn’t any. She wants to advocate for the Olympic dream that changed her life. And she hopes to be remembered for her toughness, for her victories, for the inspirational in which she conducted herself.
And yeah, for her smile.
“I did things usually with a smile,” she said. “I think I could win with a smile. I could lose with a smile as well. That’s what I’m most satisfied with overall. Not what I did. But the way in which I did it.
Retirement as an Olympic competitor officially began Wednesday night, when she planned on getting together with her husband and doing nothing more complicated than “drink some beer.
“But first and foremost, I just want to enjoy this day and enjoy the fact I was an Olympian one more time. That dream of representing Canada. I can say in my life I got to do it six times. It’s incredible.”
Indeed, it has been.