Tragedy helped reinforce Hughes’ ideals

Shi Davidi, TheChronicleHerald.ca, Toronto, Ontario

Preparing to lead Canada’s team into the Vancouver Olympics as flag-bearer, Clara Hughes was trying to unwind by watching some TV when she saw video of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal crash.

Immediately she was taken back to another tragic loss earlier in her athletic career, when Saturn Cycling teammate Nicole Reinhart was thrown from her bike during a race in 2000, slammed into a tree and was killed.

Both deaths affected Hughes deeply, and stiffened her determination to make the most of every opportunity that life presents.

“She’s with me in everything that I do,” said Hughes. “That morning when I saw the crash on the luge track, it brought me right back to Nicole, and to her memory, and to the very clear idea of just live it while you have it.

“I carried that with me through the Games.”

Hughes was speaking on a conference call Friday, part of a series of media calls with stars from the 2010 Games. The Winnipeg-born, Glen Sutton, Que., resident spoke after freestyle skier Jenn Heil, who won silver in Vancouver and recently won the moguls world championship.

The native of Spruce Grove, Alta., will retire from competition later this year and among other endeavours will work to achieve her goal of raising $1 million for Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign. She’s about a third of the way there.

Hughes is planning a return to cycling with a goal of competing at the 2012 London Olympics after racing in speedskating at three Winter Games.

The 38-year-old began her career in cycling but made the transition to speedskating in part because of Reinhart’s death.

The 24-year-old American crashed during the final descent of the BMC Software Tour of Arlington, a race outside of Boston, on Sept. 17, 2000, just as Hughes was preparing to compete in the Sydney Olympics.

Reinhart was poised to claim a $250,000 prize offered by organizers to any rider who won a series of four races, and Hughes learned of the accident while checking up on her pro teammate online.

Mired in a personal funk and struggling with whooping cough at the time, Hughes gained a needed dose of perspective when she learned what happened.

“She hit a tree head-on and died on impact,” said Hughes, who recalls consoling a crying Reinhart when she didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team. “I had for about three weeks become very negative and felt like I didn’t even belong at the Olympics because I thought I wasn’t good enough to represent my country. I was just feeling sorry for myself. When I learned of that news, it not only changed my mindset at that moment, it changed my life.

“I realized that it wasn’t about winning a medal, it was about being the best I could and bringing the best that I had no matter what that was.”

Hughes ended up finishing second-last in the road race and sixth in the time trial, describing the results as “the two races I’m most proud about in my life because I didn’t quit and I didn’t give up.”

And after years of putting off the decision, she decided to make the change to speedskating, and competed at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

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