Clara Hughes could have walked away from her athletic career after the 2010 Vancouver Games, secure in the knowledge that she would always be considered one of Canada’s greatest athletes.
But Hughes isn’t wired that way. At the age of 38, Hughes is training harder than ever in order to qualify for the 2012 Summer Games in London as a cyclist.
“Every day that I get through something grueling in training it’s a victory for me; because I am preparing to step on the line and face the pain and face the challenge and face the pressure,” Hughes told sportsnet.ca, taking time out from a whirlwind of corporate speaking engagements, public appearances and meetings with her many sponsors.
One year ago, Hughes won her final medal as a competitive speed skater when she captured the bronze in 5,000 meters before a raucous crowd at the Richmond Oval.
“To think I actually pulled off what I dreamed of doing at the Olympics, and that was having the perfect race and the race of my life.”
What sticks out in her mind more than anything was the din of the capacity crowd at the Richmond Oval that day. Hughes truly believes the outpouring of noise from the hometown crowd allowed her to put together a dream race.
“On the back stretch I couldn’t hear my coaches,” Hughes said. “I could only see them mouthing words to me because it was so overwhelmingly loud. It definitely is what gave me the energy to endure the 5000 meters.”
Hughes has put together a punishing training schedule and a strict diet ahead of qualification for London 2012. She trains wherever and whenever she can, including in between red eye flights and various obligations. After all these years, she only knows one way to train for the Olympics:
“It is game on when I’m preparing for something. I definitely have my own level of intensity,” Hughes explained.
Hughes is so determined to qualify that as of Mar. 3 she will stop all public speaking engagements, a self-imposed ban that she will not lift until after the London Games.
“I have been doing this sport for 21 years, I know what it takes to try to have that evergy to focus. You can’t do that as an athlete by traveling around and also just talking all the time about your story. I really don’t want to talk about it; I am so focused and engaged in what I’m doing.”
The idea that Hughes would make a comeback as a cyclist has been in the back of her mind for years.
“I really started thinking about this in 2007,” Hughes said, before confirming that the thoughts began when the CBC hired her to be a cycling analyst at the 2008 Beijing summer games. “I remember being at the velodrome and just thinking I’m so there. I can be there, and I can do this, and I can be one of the best. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
But while she will give up public speaking in her quest to qualify for the 2012 Games, Hughes refuses to give up something that has become a major part of her life.
“I will never give up the charitable organizations I’m involved with,” said Hughes. “In many ways that’s what keeps me going and keeps things in perspective.”
For someone that has inspired so many Canadians, it is surprising to hear what motivates Hughes when she’s staring at a long day of training and her body is aching and her mind is unwilling.
“I always go back to the first time I saw the Olympics in 1988 on television and I saw Gaetan Boucher skate his last Olympic race. I saw him not listen to everyone around him who said he wasn’t good enough anymore, he was injured, he wasn’t strong and he wasn’t fast. He went out in a world record pace and lost that race on the last lap. It was 1,500 meters and he never gave up. His body gave out, but he never gave up.” Hughes remembered.
“That had such a profound impact on me as a young person. I think if I give up, imagine if Gaetan gave up, I wouldn’t have watched someone give up and it wouldn’t have impacted me.”
The first image that comes to mind when someone mentions Hughes is a picture of here smiling face and boundless positive energy. however, what is unknown to many is that beneath that sweet smile and kind demeanor lurks a fiery competitor. Hughes laughed when asked to describe the switch the goes off in her brain when she approaches the start of a race and it is time to compete.
“Do no not stand in my way because this is where I’m going and this is how I’m getting there.”
Recently, Hughes made headlines with her frank admission that like thousands of other Canadians, she too also has suffered from depression at one time in her life. The response from her ‘Let’s Talk’ program overwhelmed her.
“I have people come up to me all the time and they don’t talk about the Olympics, they talk about the ‘Let’s Talk’ program,” Hughes said. “What means the most to me is there have been a lot of people that have said to me that you put a positive face on mental illness. And that is so important because it’s always so, so negative. I just really hope it’s going to make a change.”
Between now and the 2012 Games in London, Hughes has a number of important events coming up in the quest to qualify. They include the Pan American Championships in Colombia in early May and the Canadian National Championships in Burlington, Ont., in June. Then there is the 2011 World Championships in Denmark this September.
Despite the fact she will be approaching her 40th birthday during the 2012 Summer Olympics, Hughes is confident she can represent Canada’s cycling team in the time trial, team pursuit or both:
“I can not only take it another level, but another five levels,” Hughes said. “I’m not done. I never quit. I didn’t make a comeback; I’m just continuing what I’ve been doing for 21 years.”