People who reach the Olympic Games in more than one sport are special. Think of Britain’s Rebecca Romero, a rowing silver medallist at Athens 2004 and a track cycling Olympic champion four years later in Beijing.
But going from the Summer Olympics to the Winter Olympics and back again takes things to a staggering level. Nor does it stop there for Canada’s Clara Hughes – whereas Romero failed to get selected for this week’s Track World Championships in the Netherlands, Hughes is here and racing in Romero’s event, the women’s team pursuit.
Hughes’ Olympic record is as follows: two bronze medals in road cycling at Atlanta 1996; another road cycling appearance at Sydney 2000; speed skating bronze at Salt Lake 2002; speed skating gold and silver at Turin 2006; and bronze on the ice again at Vancouver 2010.
Now 38-years-old, she has returned to the bike and is on course to reach the London Olympics. As Canada’s flag-bearer in Vancouver in 2010, she comes armed with advice for British track cyclists on coping with the pressure of a home Games – and an undimmed enthusiasm for any sport she can get her hands on.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” she says of her team pursuit qualifying round. Canada finished sixth, not quite enough to reach Thursday’s finals but creditable all the same, two seconds slower than fourth-placed Australia in just over three minutes and 27 seconds.
Hughes took speed skating bronze at her home Olympics in 2010. Photo: Getty Images
“It’s my first race in 13 months, to the day, since I raced the speed skating at the Winter Olympics,” she reveals. “I had the race and Olympics of my life there, it was unlike anything I ever experienced or will experience again.
“I knew that was it for speed skating, but I had been thinking about getting on my bike again. In 2008, I covered the Beijing Olympics for Canadian broadcaster CBC – the road, track and mountain biking, men and women, I commentated on everything. And when I was at the track I was just in awe of everything.
“The spectacle of it, the environment, the athletes and the beauty of the sport – that sparked my interest. Then I heard that the women’s team pursuit would be added to the Olympic schedule for women [a decision taken by world governing body the UCI in late 2009]. Team pursuit is an event in which I have a silver medal from the Olympics in Turin – on ice. I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that.’”
Hughes is no stranger to bikes. A speed skater at first, she dropped the rink for the road to compete as a 23-year-old at Atlanta 1996, winning bronze in both the cycling road race and time trial.
Lured back to speed skating after Sydney in 2000, she became a poster girl for Canadian winter sport, earning the right to carry the country’s flag at her home Winter Olympics – helped by a two-medal haul on the ice in Turin.
She is the only athlete to have won multiple medals in both summer and winter sports at the Games. But it still isn’t enough, and here she is again.
“I’m in the process of finding out what I’m good at and team pursuit is fun, it’s a lot more simple than doing it on the ice,” she says. “In cycling you get to use gravity! On the ice you have no help with that.
“This is just the beginning for me, I’m in the process of getting shape again and now I have to go home and get in shape.”
At this point, I have to take issue. Track cycling at nearly 40 isn’t unheard of, and there are others as old inside this velodrome, but can you call an attempt to make your sixth Olympic Games “the beginning”?
“Why are you doing your job?” She fires back. “Are you going to be doing your job at 38, and is someone going to ask you why you’re still doing it? The limits are only there if you put them on yourself. Physiologically I’m in my prime as a female.
“I watched Jeannie Longo of France come in fourth by 1.3secs in the time trial in Beijing, at almost 50 years old, so I’m actually pretty young.”
Clara Hughes began her Olympic career with two road cycling medals in 1996. Photo: Getty Images
There are certainly very few Olympic experiences Hughes has not had. She has missed out on medals, stood on every rung of the podium, seen the Olympics come to her country, and shouldered the weight of expectation as a gold medallist heading into a home Games.
“It’s been interesting watching the British team here, because they’re facing a home Olympics after having a lot of success in the Beijing Games,” she tells me, looking over towards the GB women’s sprint team as they warm up.
“I was in the same position: I won Olympic gold in Turin in 2006 and then went into Vancouver. The attention is there if you want it and take it but it’s a really hard thing, it pulls you away from your focus.
“The British track team cannot afford to look at it as pressure. The way I saw it was an energy source that I got to tap into. It was my nation hosting the Games. I went into it with an open mind and an open heart, it was the greatest source of fuel I’ve ever felt.”
Then she says something which feels especially applicable to the British team, after their mammoth medal haul three years ago in China. “Don’t listen when people start telling you you’re great because you won something. It’s not your title. You might be called ‘the Olympic champion’ but it gives you no help for the next race.”
Hughes is well aware of Romero, too, and her British counterpart’s fight to make the British women’s team pursuit squad, having seen the event in which she is Olympic champion – the individual pursuit – axed from the Olympic programme. It is a fight Romero is currently losing and, while nobody is prepared to write off someone as undeniably talented, avenues for her return ahead of 2012 are, one by one, closing.
Hughes commentated on Romero’s gold medal in 2008 and she empathises with that battle. She believes athletes like herself and Romero have to avoid pitfalls in the way they think about their careers.
“The problem comes if you look at it as failure or success,” she says. “My greatest fear as an athlete is giving in to the pain in the race, and letting the pain get the better of me, and not fighting through it. I’ve never had a fear of failing or losing. Don’t focus on the wrong things.
“Step back once in the while, look at what it is you’re doing. In each of the 10 years that I skated, three or four times a week I would have this feeling of: ‘My God, I can’t believe I can actually do this.’ And I feel the same way on the track. ‘This is so cool.’ If I didn’t lose that feeling in 10 years on the ice I’m not going to lose it on the track.”
If Hughes wants to win her seventh Olympic medal in London, that feeling and focus will be needed in spades. The women’s team pursuit may be new to the Games but it is ferociously competitive, led by teams from Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Carving her way into the top three come 2012 is a test even of Hughes’ capabilities.
“We can push it much further,” she assures me. “I’m very excited to see where this team is going to go. The potential is there. If we make good plans and execute them, there are no limitations. I wouldn’t be doing this if there were.”