Olympian Clara Hughes describes her own ‘spiral of darkness’ in bid to raise awareness

BY CHLOE FEDIO, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN

Clara Hughes flashes her poster-perfect smile as she points to the purple D.I.F.D. band on her left wrist.

Do It For Daron.

It’s a reminder of the Olympian athlete’s own “spiral of darkness” — sleeping 18 hours a day and spending her waking hours in tears.

“Even someone like me that can seem really strong — I’m so vulnerable. I’m so human,” Hughes said. “This is something that I will face for the rest of my life.”

The subject might be taboo, but Hughes wants to talk about it — and she wants others to, as well.

Ottawa teen Daron Richardson was silent. She took her own life at 14.

Hughes stood centre ice at Scotiabank Place Saturday night as spokeswoman for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, which encourages Canadians to talk about mental illness.

Daron’s parents, assistant coach for the Senators Luke Richardson and his wife Stephanie, joined Hughes for a ceremonial puck drop. The game’s youth mental health awareness theme played out with ads between plays, in which Hughes declares that she too battled depression.

Hughes said she felt ashamed when — as a young athlete, a cyclist and a speed skater, who took home two bronze medals after her first Olympics in 1996 — she became depressed.

“I thought that life would be great and it would just continue to go the way it was — in this amazing direction,” she said before the game. “I was over-trained. I was exhausted. I had everything I thought I should want as an athlete — success — but I was miserable. I didn’t know how to change what I was doing because I was just in such a bad place.”

But years later she wants Canadians to know that she’s no longer ashamed.

“When I first told my story there were a lot of people that said, ‘Whoa. Wasn’t it risky to talk about that?’ I don’t want that to be a question in anybody’s mind,” Hughes said. “It’s not anything to be ashamed of. I hope I can be an example for people.”

Even when she’s competing, Hughes still finds ways to “break down the stigma.” Last May, Hughes donned the purple bracelet and dedicated the Chrono Gatineau cycling time trial to Daron. She crashed and landed on her rear end at the halfway mark of the 20-kilometre race, but motored on.

“I looked down and saw the purple bracelet and I thought, ‘You have to do this. You’re bigger than the pain in your hip right now,’ ” she recalled. “It really inspired me and I won the race that day.”

She plans to race in honour of Daron in the same race this year.

In the meantime, she said hockey is a great backdrop to talk about mental health.

“On the drive here, I saw a guy walking down the street with a hockey stick and his skate were hanging on the stick through the blades. I thought, ‘That’s so Canadian.’ What connects Canadians is hockey,” she said. “It’s a great way to spread the message to break down the stigma of mental health.”

Hughes took a break from her training in Salt Lake City to attend her very first Sens game.

“When I got the opportunity to be part of this campaign and to share the story of the struggles I’ve gone through, I realized it’s even more important than sharing the victories I’ve had,” she said. “We all go through things and you don’t get through things alone. I want to tell people that.”

As part of the Let’s Talk campaign, Bell will donate five cents to mental health programs for every text message sent and every long distance call made its customers on Feb. 8.

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