Olympian Hughes trades skates for wheels

Molly Hayes, The Hamilton Spectator, Hamilton, Ontario

Clara Hughes is back on her bike, and was back in Hamilton this past weekend to prove she’s still a champion.

The six-time Olympic medalist trained for years in the city, and used this weekend’s National Road Cycling Championship in Burlington as a chance to catch up with old friends.

“I lived in Hamilton and Dundas for seven years, and it always feels like home to me. And particularly racing on Rattlesnake Point, it’s just such a beautiful part of Ontario.”

It was also an opportunity for the cyclist-turned-speed-skater-turned-cyclist to test herself and prepare for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

She placed first in the elite woman’s time trial on Thursday, finishing the 21.6 km ride in 30 minutes 25 seconds. In the road race Friday, she placed tenth.

She thought about giving up – she was suffering from whiplash after a crash during Monday’s training, and was hurting on the climb up Rattlesnake Point – but a crowd of cheering kids kept her going.

“There were so many kids on the climb cheering for me, and I saw signs saying ‘Go Clara!’ and I just thought ‘what am I going to say to these kids?’”

“That’s what made me finish that race. I gave it everything I had, and everything I had was tenth place,” she said. “I just thought, here you go, right now is an opportunity to set an example for young people. So I just decided, no, even if I have to walk up this hill I’m finishing this race.”

Hughes is 38; for a professional athlete, she’s old. But she’s confident in her return to the sport after her retirement from speed skating last year.

It’s a tough transition, but she says she’s at a place now to know what works.

“I notice a difference in my approach now,” she said. “It’s an incredibly difficult pursuit, but I would say the biggest difference is that I know how to do this very, very well. I know how to focus better now than I ever have.”

And a big part of her ability to focus is having executed a perfect Olympics at home. She was flag-bearer for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team in Vancouver; her first games at home and her last winter games as a speed skater.

She won a bronze medal in the 500m.

“Trying to be the best in the world at something is grueling. But it allows for some really beautiful moments.”

Beautiful moments like two bronze medals at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games; a gold, silver, and two bronze Winter Games medals; victories at the Pan American and Commonwealth Games; and numerous World Cycling and National Championship titles.

Hughes is the only athlete in history to have multiple medals in both winter and summer Olympic Games.

She’s also been in the spotlight for her work with charity groups like Bell’s ‘Let’s Talk’ mental health initiative, and ‘Right to Play’. This week, she’s taking a well-deserved break before she heads to altitude training in Utah. From there she’ll race in the Cascade Classic in Oregon in July.

All parts of the plan toward achieving her main goal:

“I want to have the race of my life in London.”

mhayes@thespec.com

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