The story would have been more theatrical, more suited to a biopic, had Clara Hughes ridden off into the athletic sunset after the emotional triumph of Vancouver.
But, although the entire world is her stage, Hughes has never been about the drama, never been about the obvious script.
She is not Hollywood. She’s not even Little Theatre. She is about real life, although at times she might seem too good to be true.
“No, she is very much who she is,” Canadian biking great Curt Harnett says about the only person in the world ever to have won multiple medals in both the Summer and Olympic Games. “She’s very unique. You constantly admire her spirit.”
Spirit is the attribute, among many others, which almost everyone in the tight circle of elite world athletes applies to Hughes. Her competitive spirit, her holistic spirit, her giving spirit.
“The young people look at her and learn so much from her,” said Joelle Numainville, the top Canadian (fourth over) in an elite race in Gatineau on Monday, during which Hughes crashed and bruised her back. “For sure she’s a role model. So much experience … and she shares it; it’s really great to have her. She brings a lot to the sport.”
To two sports. Hughes won cycling bronze medals in the time trial and road race at the 1996 Olympics, and has won four Olympic speed skating medals: bronze in the 5,000 metres at Salt Lake in 2002; gold in the 5,000 and silver in the team pursuit at Torino in 2006; and bronze again in the 5,000 at Vancouver 2010, in what the entire country assumed was the very last Olympic event of her career.
There we all were writing the easy, predictable, screenplay that she did not read.
The London Olympics will be her sixth Games, providing she is named to the Canadian team next month, which is a virtual shoo-in with her strength in the time trial. And, contrary to current lore, she hasn’t come out of retirement to do it.
“I’ve been planning this for a long time, since before Vancouver,” Hughes was saying this week in Gatineau. “Just, nobody asked about cycling, everybody asked about speed skating and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m retiring.’
“I’m just really grateful and excited to be a part of it. I think maybe I can contribute some positive things and some experience — and hopefully some great results.”
Although she has been living in Quebec’s Eastern Townships since 1998, in 1991 at the age of 18, she followed her coach Mirek Mazur from Winnipeg to Dundas and lived in the Hamilton area for seven years, including her breakthrough 1996 Olympic season. She still winces at the thought of Sydenham Hill.
Hughes smiles at a reporter’s probe, wondering if her incredible conditioning and legendary competitive attitude might keep her around to complete the local “cycle” at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“I’ve no idea,” she says. “I’m just looking at this year. 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.
“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.”
Starkman, the Toronto Star’s Olympics writer and a close friend of Hughes, died unexpectedly of pneumonia this spring. Just before the Vancouver Games, he had written a poignant piece about Hughes’ struggles with drinking and soft drugs during her mid-teens and how sport, in the form of Canadian Olympian Gaetan Boucher’s speed skating, inspired her to change her life. Like Starkman, Hughes also battled depression while she was living in Hamilton.
Hughes dedicated last year’s and this year’s Gatineau races to Ottawa’s Daron Richardson, daughter of former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Richardson, who took her own life at the age of 14 because of depression. Hughes is involved in Let’s Talk, an organization that tries to remove the stigma of mental illness and says she’ll speak out about it the rest of her life. It’s one of her many contributions to the larger, harsher world outside of sport. She donated her medal prize money from the 2010 Games to Vancouver youth-protection group Take a Hike and, after the 2006 Games, she gave $10,000 of her own money to Right to Play. She is prominent in her support of numerous other humanitarian causes.
The London Games open exactly two months before Hughes’s 40th birthday but, says Harnett, that shouldn’t be a factor for one of the greatest athletes this country as ever produced.
“Age? I don’t think is something that’s even relevant. Especially in the endurance sports, you can take it later into your career. Her spirit is what it is. She doesn’t act or talk like someone who’s almost 40. She’s got a focus and an ability to push herself.
“She has this odd expression on her face where she looks like she’s having the time of her life when she’s on the edge of her seat, when she’s absolutely pushing the limit. I was a teammate of hers when she was young and, watching her skate in Torino, I had tears in my eyes, witnessing the drive I know and seeing that look I know so well.
“When she has that look on her face, you know she’s exceeding even her own expectations. It doesn’t look like she’s suffering and it can really discourage opponents.”
And that’s about the only context in which you will ever hear “Clara Hughes” and “discourage” in the same sentence.