More than anything, I think, it’s her smile — that big, toothy grin that sweeps you up into her radiant, red-haired enthusiasm — that connects Canadians to Clara Hughes.
More than her six Olympic medals, or her two demanding pursuits (cycling and speed skating) or her astounding participation in six separate Olympic Games (three summer and three winter) from 1996 to 2012.
It’s her smile that grabs you. It’s her smile you later recall.
But for a few years, that smile was nothing but a mask that hid her emotional pain.
“The smile I felt I had to put on became harder and harder to put on my face,” said Hughes, adding it was a national team doctor who convinced her she couldn’t overcome her bouts with depression alone. “That’s when I realized I needed help.”
Hughes spoke Tuesday morning to more than 1,100 spectators at the London Convention Centre for the seventh annual Breakfast of Champions, a fundraiser presented jointly by St. Joseph’s Health Care Foundation and the Canadian Mental Health Association London-Middlesex.
Hughes told the audience that after a youth filled with drinking booze, taking drugs and skipping school, it was cycling that gave her the focus that changed her life.
But it was a focus that nearly ruined her.
“I was severely over-trained as a young athlete,” she said in an interview after her speech. “I was run into the ground. And that’s what it took to win two bronze medals in my first Olympics. But to be quite frank, it absolutely destroyed me.
“I had no balance. I couldn’t take a day off because I thought I was lazy if I did . . . So I was pushed into the ground.”
During those “dark times,” Hughes admitted she desperately tried to hide her mental-health woes.
“I just didn’t want to show weakness,” she said. “I had to be strong, I had to be good, I had to win. So talking about that (depression) and asking for help, or even thinking that I couldn’t fix myself . . . was out of the question.
“That’s the mind-set I was in. It was completely delusional and irrational. But that’s part of what made me so good, so young, and possibly allowed me to do everything I did.”
Hughes, who still seeks psychiatric counselling, is striving to erase the stigma of shame often attached to mental illness.
“We all struggle,” she said. “But I honestly feel like . . . we’re just getting started in changing the face of mental health care in Canada. The shift is just starting to happen.”
The people in that room, she said, were proof of that new attitude.
“Just to have 1,100 people here for a mental health fundraising breakfast,” she said. “I mean, 10 years ago, no way. How are you going to fill a room with a subject no one wants to talk about?”
Hughes’ message to those battling depression was simple: Get help.
“Do not sit there and think you’re going to get over this and you’re going to fix yourself,” she said. “It’s not going to happen. You’re not going to do it alone, and there’s so much (help) out there.”
And then she flashed that unforgettable grin.
Ian Gillespie is the Free Press city columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org