There’s an axiom about never forgetting how to ride a bike. There are some days Clara Hughes might take issue with that.
Hughes, 39, is in the midst of a stunning comeback in the two-wheeled sport at which she once excelled, back before she captured medals and a nation’s hearts on skating ovals.
The five-time Olympian with the infectious smile and inspiring spirit is going back to her sixth Games, this time as a cyclist in the road race and time trial events at London. She earned a bronze in both those disciplines in 1996 at Atlanta and was sixth in the time trial at the 2000 Games hosted by Sydney.
Between then and now, Hughes became a decorated long-track skater and the first athlete to win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Games. Hughes has four medals as a speed skater, including a gold in the 5,000-metres at Turin in 2006. Everyone assumed a bronze in that event at Vancouver was her Olympic swan song. She hung up her skates and her bike was already gathering dust.
Then, in 2010, after a decade away from competitive cycling, Hughes let it be known she was pumping her tires for a run at the podium at London. While it’s not her motivation, a medal there would make her Canada’s most decorated Olympian. Speed skater Cindy Klassen also has six.
There is, however, no soft-pedalling the reality. It won’t be easy.
“It’s been so humbling,” Hughes said recently, noting she’s had to re-educate herself in the art of bike racing. It didn’t, like the old saying might suggest, return automatically.
“(I realized) I knew very little about the sport. I had a lot to learn . . . so much to improve” she said. “. . . Just basically being in this crazy sport and realizing I have 13 years in cycling under my belt but I’m learning so much in the process. It’s a pretty special place to be as a 39-year-old.”
Hughes, a powerhouse of energy, has done remarkably well. She’s been on the podium at every major time trial this season and, at the Pan American Championships in 2011, she won gold in both events that she’ll be competing in at London. The capper, of course, was being named to the Canadian Olympic team for a sixth Games.
Beyond saying she is “thrilled beyond belief” at this latest achievement, the Winnipeg native says there is no time to reflect on her career. Not yet.
“No way. I’m too busy,” she said. “I’m just too busy thinking about and focusing on preparing for the two races I have in London. If I was to sit back and think of everything I did, first of all, it would be a long moment and, secondly, it’s not going to help me. It will not help me go faster, It will not help my focus in London. I think it could take away from it.”
It would be a “long moment” indeed. Hughes’ life story is as fascinating as her current comeback.
Her background, once poignantly chronicled in these pages by longtime amateur sports reporter Randy Starkman, was that of a troubled teen from a broken home who had little direction while running with a group of hardscrabble kids in Winnipeg.
They would party in stairwells of Winnipeg parking garages with Hughes, while only 13, the one able to buy the beer because her 5-foot-9 build and the extra makeup made her look much older. She dabbled in drugs, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, often skipped school and ran away from home several times.
“I look at that period of my life, I have friends from that time who are severe alcoholics and have major social problems and life problems,” she told Starkman. “I know a girl whose boyfriend killed her and then killed himself.
“When I see kids that are like that now, I think, ‘You don’t know where this can lead you. You’re just wasting your life.’ I was wasting my life. I’m not proud of who I was. But at the time, I didn’t care about anything. I think I didn’t have a value system because I came from a dysfunctional family. My mom did the best she could with my sister and I, but we basically went wild after my parents separated.”
While it’s not the typical starting point for an admired Olympian — Hughes is an officer in the Order of Canada and a member of Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame — the teen found salvation channel surfing one night..
The 16-year-old happened upon a broadcast of the legendary Canadian speed skater Gaetan Boucher competing at the 1988 Olympics. It was a life-changing moment. She’d found her calling. In the spring, she attended a training camp at the Winnipeg Speed Skating Club. About a year later, cycling became her passion.
Sport, says Hughes, provided her with a value system and a sense of right and wrong. And the powerful inspiration she received from Boucher is a big reason why she keeps competing. She hopes she might have the same impact on some of today’s youth.
Her desire to inspire is also a big reason why she went public with her battles with depression. That big smile of hers is featured in the Bell Let’s Talk campaign that focuses attention on mental health issues. By openly discussing her struggles, Hughes hopes to break down the stigma surrounding those illnesses. She suffered depression after the Atlanta Games, she recalls, as she spiralled into what she recalls as a “dark place” emotionally. It was a time in her life when she isolated herself, gained weight while often sleeping long hours and crying for no particular reason.
She got help through a national team doctor and her husband and she wants others to understands the importance of being open and getting professional help.
Hughes prides herself in inspiring others — she is also very active in Right to Play and other humanitarian organizations — but what is it that inspires her?
She said she is still looking for the perfect race on a bike to match what she calls her “best race on ice” in her finale at Vancouver. And in a phrase she uses often, she said she is trying to live in the moment and make the most out of every opportunity. That point was driven home further this spring when Starkman, who had become a friend, died in hospital after being diagnosed with pneumonia
“I just want to live every moment like it’s my last and just be the best that I can. That’s always been my goal, not to look too far ahead,” she told the Hamilton Spectator recently.
“I live my whole life that way and I encourage others to as well because you never know. I lost a couple of good people close to me this year and it’s another reminder of how short life can be. Nobody expected that Randy Starkman wouldn’t be at the Olympics this year. I carry his spirit in my heart.”
Hughes said she has “no idea what lies ahead after London.”
“I’ve always followed my instincts and my heart and my desire and my passions, just living my life,” she said. “My life has been sports for 22 years. That’s what has meant the most to me. If it continues, it continues. If it stops, I could call it a pretty good career.”
Clara Hughes has stiff competition
Clara Hughes’ attempt to become Canada’s most decorated Olympian will draw in the patriotic and the sentimental but the feat won’t be easy.
There will be a strong contingent of women, particularly from Europe, at London who will be pedalling for the podium in both the road race and road time trials.
One of the best, and top ranked in the world, is Marianne Vos of the Netherlands. She is fully recovered from a broken collarbone suffered during a race in May when she collided with a motorcycle. She wins most races she enters and even on the day she was injured, she finished second. She won Olympic gold in the points race in 2008.
Sweden’s Emma Johansson, a silver medallist at Beijing in 2008 in the road race is back while Germany is sending the dynamic duo of Judith Arndt and Ina Teutenberg.
Joining Hughes on the Canadian women’s road cycling squad is Yellowknife’s Denise Ramsden, who edged Hughes in the recent national road cycling championship at Lac-Megantic, Que. Also on the team is Joelle Numainville of Montreal, who may be Canada’s best sprinter in road racing.
Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria is a one-man team on the men’s side for Canada. He became nationally known with a recent victory in the famed Giro d’Italia. Canada qualified for only one men’s spot and Hesjedal will participate in both the time trial and road race.
The time trials for both the men and women are on Aug. 1. The women’s road race is on July 29 and the men’s on July 28.