EAST HORSLEY, ENGLAND—
Joelle Numainville had just given a long, thoughtful answer, explaining in her native French how she feels on the eve of her first Olympics when someone in the press gathering asked for a version in English.
Clara Hughes, seated at her elbow, couldn’t hold back.
“She said she’s ready to rock,” Hughes joked, breaking in to that huge, familiar grin.
The Games haven’t even started yet and Hughes is showing herself to be good with a comeback.
The scene was, ostensibly, a media conference for the women’s cycling team — Hughes, Numainville and Denise Ramsden — and their coaches as they await the 140-kilometre road race at the Olympics on Sunday. But make no mistake; it was Hughes’ show, as she engagingly answered questions in both official languages, only interrupting herself once in French because she wasn’t certain how to explain that her approach Sunday is to “just unleash everything that I have.”
Of course Hughes took centre stage because win or lose — and she left little doubt she believes she can achieve the former — hers is a remarkable story.
At 39, she is returning to the Olympics as a cyclist after three consecutive Winter Games on the podium as a speed skater. She won two bronze medals as cyclist in 1996, then picked up another four medals, including a gold, while pursuing her skating passion. If she earns a medal in one of her two events in London— she’s also in the time trial — after a decade-long break from competitive cycling, Hughes would surpass Cindy Klassen as Canada’s most decorated Olympian ever.
Now that would be a comeback.
“It’s a gift. It’s an opportunity,” said Hughes of her return to the Games. “I’m just so motivated to try, and to see what’s possible. And that’s my goal, to be whatever I may be on that day, and to have no regrets. Right now it’s so beautiful that I just want to be engaged in every moment and I want to be engaged in this process, and to feel the spirit of the Olympics, and be a part of this beautiful event once again.”
It was just so typical of Hughes, who can spout phrases that sound like some sort of new-age hippie philosophy while drawing the most cynical observers in to her vortex of enthusiasm and infectious spirit. But despite her desire to soak in the atmosphere, this isn’t some sort of feel-good farewell tour. Hughes is a tough and aggressive athlete, one who has already used her hard-hewn mentality to hit the podium several times during this past season.
“We have a lot of cards to play and I’m very, very excited about the team that has been picked,” she said Wednesday. “I love helping people win, but I also know how to win. And anyone who underestimates that ability in me, well, I wish them luck.”
With three racers in the 67-women field, the Canadians will, if they choose, be able to strategically work together in an attempt to get one of them to the podium. At 24, Numainville is 15 years younger than Hughes and a brilliant sprinter. Ramsden is even younger at 21 and out-sprinted Hughes at nationals. But who will be supporting who? Will they rely on that youthful speed on a break or do they look to take advantage of Hughes power and race savvy on a challenging course. The team was unwilling to tip its hand Wednesday.
“There are two races and two medal chances and we are going for the gold in both,” said coach Denise Kelly, coyly, when asked for some insight into Canada’s approach.
“We have a very good plan in the works. We’re not going to talk about it. We’ll show it on race day,” said Hughes.
Meanwhile, Hughes said she will absorb everything she can from her Olympic experience, especially one in England where her father was born.
“My father’s from here. My ancestors are here. I feel at home being really pasty and pale, and with red hair. I feel very ordinary, and I kind of like it here,” she said.
Sunday’s race will pass through this small village southwest of London and the team has been staying in a hotel on the grounds of a grand Victorian mansion here to help get acclimatized to the area and its roads. And Hughes is hoping to use that experience to find the perfect race within herself, something she said she was able to achieve at the Vancouver Olympics, a bronze-medal effort in the 5,000-metres.
“I think I realized . . . how I got to that in Vancouver,” she explained here. “I beat myself up day after day on the ice, thinking I didn’t feel, I didn’t float, I didn’t fly, I didn’t glide, I didn’t do anything right, and it wasn’t perfect. And one day I said, ‘Screw it, I’m just gonna skate.’ And then the perfection happened. So it’s more that I just need to let myself ride my bike, and not worry about anything being perfect . . . I just want to give my all. And I’m ready to do that.”
Toronto Star reporter Randy Starkman in Clara Hughes’ thoughts
EAST HORSLEY, ENGLAND—It is picturesque around what one British newspaper named England’s richest village. It’s easy to see how someone — even a training Olympic athlete — could get lose themselves in nostalgia and memories while cycling through the verdant, historic Surrey countryside southwest of London.
As Clara Hughes prepares for her sixth Olympics, she said her thoughts always return to the same person, the late Randy Starkman.
Starkman was the Toronto’s Star’s peerless amateur sports reporter who passed away in April after checking into hospital with pneumonia. Hughes has called Starkman her “best friend in sport” and the two had been collaborating on a book together. Starkman, known for getting the back story on Canada’s athletes, covered 12 Olympics and became the face athletes would look for in crowded interview areas after an event, such was their level of comfort with the hard-driven but fair reporter.
Starkman chronicled Hughes’ career in the pages of the Star and it was him she trusted over the years to sensitively tell the story of her wild teen years in Winnipeg or break the news of her comeback in cycling.
“Since I’ve been here in London, and I’ve been out riding on the time trial course, I’ve been on these great little roads in this district of Surrey, these little roads that are in the forest and they’re canopied by trees, and I can’t stop thinking about Randy Starkman,” Hughes said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“I cannot stop thinking about him because he’s here with me in my heart. I just can’t believe I’m at a Games without him, and I think a lot of people in this room can agree with that. Because he was, in your world, the heart and the soul of amateur sport in Canada, and believe me, what I’m doing here is a dedication to his spirit, and the goodness that he saw in all of us athletes.”
In her blog after Randy’s death, Hughes wrote a touching tribute to the 51-year-old.
“I only wonder who is going to tell the stories now that Randy is gone,” she wrote in conclusion. “Yes, indeed, they will be told but they will never be the same. We’ve lost our voice of reason and our voice of joy. We’ve lost our dear friend and colleague, Randy Starkman.”