Hughes lost two years to mental illness

Erin Cowan

Special to The Nugget

North Bay, Ontario

May 23, 2013

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On Thursday night, I stood beside a six-time Olympic medalist powerhouse, tears streaming down my cheeks. Clara Hughes gave me a reassuring squeeze around the shoulders and gave me her favourite medal to wear in the picture I was taking with her. The medal I wore around my neck was the bronze she won on Canadian soil in the 5000m speed skating race in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

In a burst of emotion, I told her that I too, lost a year to depression and that it was an incredible honour to meet her. Her candid story touched me in a way I never thought it would. Meeting another person with mental illness was incredibly meaningful for me. I was overcome with emotion not because I was reminded of the struggle I had gone through, but because Clara spoke of hope, recovery, and success after illness.

Speaking to a full house in the Capitol Centre, Clara engaged us in a colourful description of love, loss, and an intimate insight into the life of an Olympic athlete.

She opened her speech with a lively account of her adolescent years, which were peppered with drugs, alcohol, and cigarette use. Her “delinquent days” came to an end when she stumbled upon an Olympic broadcast of a speed skating race during the 1988 Calgary Olympics with Gaetan Boucher preparing for a race. Hughes was animated as she described the “inferno that burned” in Boucher’s eyes. The flames spread and in 1989, she won her first silver medal at a National speed skating championship. She was recruited and asked to attend to a cycling training camp in 1990. She continued with cycling for the next few years of her athletic career – a sport she claims is dangerous physically and mentally.

Hughes attributes her success to her dynamic personality, which was infectious during her presentation. She credits her unique ability to “pour her entire being into something” as one of the keys to her success. Twenty years later, she would direct that passion into educating Canadians on the stigma and challenges that surround mental health.

After the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Hughes’ mental health began to decline. She described herself as feeling unmotivated, unable to get out of bed, and purposefully isolating herself. She told us of the times she would cry for no reason, and how she once had to find refuge in a washroom stall because she was overcome with tears. I was flooded with memories of my own battle with depression and the many days I spent in bed. Clara lost two years to mental illness, racing only 6 weeks out of an 11-month cycling season while she battled depression.

It took a caring physician and a social support network for her to regain her balance. Clara began to take adventure tours with her future husband, Peter, to “ground herself” and learn how to enjoy life again. She eventually returned to racing in time for the 2000 Olympics with the support of a strong network and a new coach.

In 2001, Clara returned to the ice and competed in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, becoming the first Canadian to win medals in both winter and summer Olympics. Her account of competing in Vancouver, “at home” was captivating and she was emotional as she described how she felt Canada inside of her. She “skated like [she] never had before”, winning a bronze medal in the 5000m race.

Hughes was able to find peace with the stress of being flag bearer in the Vancouver Olympics by attending a brushing-off ceremony offered by the Squamish First Nations reserve on the North Shore of Vancouver. Her ability to continually search for inner balance and strength is an inspiration to those of us coping with mental illness. Her words are a reminder to continually search for an outlet to express ourselves and establish inner peace.

She has also been awarded an Officer of the Order of Canada, has a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, and three honourary Doctorates. Along with many youth athletic programs, Clara is also extensively involved in Right to Play, an international program that promotes sports and play to improve quality of life for children in countries affected by poverty and war.

Clara Hughes is a not just a champion of physical and mental strength. She is a champion of promoting sports to children worldwide, she is a spokesperson for a major Canadian mental health initiative, and a soldier for equal mental health rights for professional athletes.

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