Joe O’Connor, The National Post Toronto, Ontario
Even over the phone, Clara Hughes bubbles, she giggles with infectious glee, and you know that she is smiling, smiling that famous smile of hers.
Happy is her natural state. It is who she is: Our national sweetheart, an Olympic darling with a radiant glow, a great big grin and a closet full of medals.
She has collected them in the summer (on her bike) and in the winter (on her skates), and won us over along the way.
Or maybe it was her smile that did that. Maybe that’s why it is so strange to talk to Clara Hughes about that time when she was not smiling, about being stuck in a dark and lonely place — about the depression that nearly swallowed her whole.
She has never talked about it. She is ready to now.
It is easy to forget just how long we’ve known the girl with the auburn hair. Ms. Hughes wasn’t always a familiar face. In 1996, she was fresh. An Olympic rookie, a terror on two wheels powering her way to a pair of cycling bronze medals at the Atlanta Games.
Afterwards, in the afterglow, Ms. Hughes didn’t want it to end.
“I just thought it would keep going,” she says. “I thought I would get better and better and better. I didn’t realize I was digging a pretty deep hole for myself.”
Ms. Hughes is a Princess of Pain. Part of what makes her a great athlete is her extraordinary capacity to suffer — to push her mind and body to places no mind or body should ever go. For years, she trained, obsessively. Over-trained, she says, logging 23,000 km a year on her bike. She pushed boundaries. In September of 1996, the boundaries started pushing back. Her ankle broke down, and she developed chronic bursitis in her heel.
She felt like hell, but she kept at it, kept pushing. Sport was the only thing she knew how to do.
“Nothing seemed to make the injuries better,” she says. “But what was really wrong, and what I was ignoring — because I didn’t know how to begin to deal with it — was that I was depressed.
“I was crying everyday. I was in a state of despair. I knew there was something wrong with me but I didn’t know what, and I was embarrassed that there was something wrong with me.”
She was living alone in Hamilton, and remembers that time as the loneliest of her life. She was sleeping 17 hours a day and in her waking moments crying a waterfall of tears. She gained weight, about 15 pounds — nothing much to most of us but everything to an elite athlete. She was embarrassed by it. Embarrassed by everything. How she felt. How she looked. How she couldn’t just snap out of it. She hid her feelings, and kept on smiling, or tried to, anyway, even though there was no joy behind it.
“At times, I felt like I just didn’t want to be on this Earth,” she says. “I am not saying I felt suicidal, but I just had this sense of, ‘I wish I wasn’t here anymore, because then I wouldn’t have to deal with all this.’ ”
She had tipped over the edge, fallen into a black abyss and didn’t know how to climb out. Rock bottom, if there is such a thing, came in Vancouver airport in January 1997. The double bronze medalist was en route to a training camp. People were everywhere, complete strangers, and the young Olympian was bawling, uncontrollably, in their midst.
Ms. Hughes phoned her boyfriend, Peter Guzman. He promised her it would be OK. When she landed in Victoria she summoned the courage to open up to the national team doctor, Gloria Cohen. The doctor reassured the cyclist she wasn’t alone; that other people felt exactly like she did, at times, and there were ways to help.
It was a liberating conversation. Not a miracle cure, but a realization there was a light, somewhere, amid the blackness. And hokey as it sounds, for Ms. Hughes, love was the light — or part of it.
Mr. Guzman, her boyfriend then and husband now, is not a jock. He is fit and strong, but doesn’t have an Olympic bone in his body. What he did possess was a balanced life where Ms. Hughes had a singular focus. Mr. Guzman introduced her to books, infected her with a love for the outdoors and taught her that sometimes the best thing in the world to do was to simply sit still for a while, listening to the wind in the trees and watching the sun dip below the horizon.
They hiked, high in the Utah mountains, rode for miles on end and relaxed, together. The fairy tale therapy included a physiological component. Ms. Hughes declined medication, and focused on her diet. Tests revealed that processed sugar, a delight she devoured in chocolate and cakes and muffins and bread, played havoc with her hormones. She cut it out, embraced fruits and vegetables and all foods natural, remained open and confessional with her coaches about her mental state and gradually, almost imperceptibly, the curtain lifted.
It would take two years, but one day she realized she wasn’t lost anymore. She was back to being Clara, only a better, happier Clara than she had been before.
Even now, it is not easy. The struggle persists. After capturing gold at the 2006 Torino Games the 38-year-old felt herself sliding again, felt her emotions swinging around like a trapeze.
“Sports is a really difficult thing to do, when you push yourself so hard — you succeed, you fail — you are dealing with deep-rooted human emotions and you can crack,” she says. “I have seen athletes that have cracked and they are never the same.”
Clara Hughes is the national spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk Day
Talking to a counsellor helped back then. But the abyss is always there. Deep inside. Lurking. Ms. Hughes is confronting it publicly now. She is the face of Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, a national mental health campaign set for Feb. 9, and she will appear as a guest with Ron MacLean on Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast
“So often I’ve shared the joy with others,” she says. “And now it is time and it makes sense to share some of the struggles, too.”
And the struggle is not over yet. Clara Hughes has another mountain to climb, and there is no guarantee she can get to the top. The most decorated Olympian in our nation’s history (along with Cindy Klassen) is a rookie again, in a sense, and back in her bike saddle and pedaling against Father Time — and younger athletes — in a bid to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics.
For Ms. Hughes, nothing compares to competition, the elusive search for the perfect race. She says she skated it in Vancouver last February and wants to find it on her bike. There is no high like an Olympic high, and Clara Hughes is a hardcore junkie — craving another fix.
“There is nothing like competing and when I have it, I live it, and when it is over it is going to be over,” she says. “And I know I am going to have amazing opportunities in my life, but I also know that nothing will ever compare to what I do now.”
Or maybe it will. Maybe the sound of the wind whistling over a mountain ridge can replace the roar of the crowd. Maybe the perfect sunset can match the perfect race.
Clara Hughes has won her fair share, after all. We know her because of her winning smile.
And yet, we hardly knew her at all.
“Every day for the rest of my life I am going to have to be careful, I am going to keep myself in check because I have had this experience with depression,” she says.
“I have had these struggles and I dip into them from time to time, over and over again, but I know what the signals are.
“I know when my body is telling me to back off and I just hope I have the capacity to always listen — and not fall into that darkness ever again.”