Clara Hughes: Doing it her way with a big assist

Randy Starkman, The Toronto Star, Burlington, Ontario

Clara Hughes has always taken the road less travelled, but never more so than right now, on her final Olympic journey.

As she painstakingly prepares — put the emphasis on pain (more on that later) — to try to become Canada’s most decorated Olympic athlete in London, Hughes is doing it without any government support. She’s not getting a monthly athlete stipend from Sport Canada or any funding from Own The Podium or the Canadian Cycling Association.

“I’m in a no man’s land with funding,” said Hughes, who retired from speed skating after the Vancouver Olympics before returning to cycling.

But this isn’t one of those athletes griping about funding stories.

Hughes considers herself among the most fortunate Canadian athletes — she has an anonymous benefactor underwriting her training and competition budget of about $120,000 including equipment.

“He said the reason he’s supporting me is ‘I really like what you do and I like the example you set for young people,’” said the 38-year-old.

Hughes’ worth as a role model was on display this week at the IMMUNITY-FX Canadian Road Championships powered by Canaccord Wealth Management. It was her 10th-place finish behind Veronique Fortin in the road race on Friday night, not her victory the day before in the time trial, that really showed Hughes’ mettle.

Hughes crashed at 55 kilometres per hour Monday while training for the time trial, skidding along the road on her left side and smacking her head hard on the pavement so hard it cracked her helmet.

She emerged without a concussion, but when Hughes held up her shredded bike jersey Saturday, it looked like she’d been mauled by a bear.

“It was a horrific crash, I’m not exaggerating,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

It left her sore and stiff and her back started locking up early in the road race, which includes a tough climb up Rattlesnake Point Hill. She thought about quitting but she looked over at the kids lining the course, including 9-year-old Clara Kemperman, named after her by friends and holding a sign saying “Go Clara!”

“I thought to myself ‘What are you going to say to that kid if you quit? Oh, my back hurt.’ Does that ever come out right? I knew I had to finish no matter what.”

It’s that resolve that will stand Hughes in good stead on this mission, a big part of which is to show that Canadian athletes can succeed if they get the proper funding.

“I want to prove to people that it is an issue of funding and if you have funding you can succeed,” she said. “It’s as simple as that. You have talent, you have ability, all high level athletes do. But they need support, they need funding.

“A part of my mission is to show what’s possible and also I hope to show when you support an athlete, you’re a part of their process, a huge part. The person that funds me, I send him updates all the time. And he emails me back ‘I feel like I’m doing this with you.’”

Hughes said she doesn’t think people realize the difference they can make in helping an athlete achieve their dreams.

“I remember reading about Silken Laumann,” she said. “She had a supporter, a man who gave her $10,000 when she had nothing. I think she tried to convince him not to, but he just wanted to help her and be part of her success. I remember thinking that was the coolest thing.

“I’m so lucky and I don’t feel like I should be the only one.”

Hughes notes the Canadian cycling team still doesn’t have a title sponsor one year out from London, despite some great young talent and the climb of the only Canadian pro team, SpiderTech, to the Continental circuit.

Team SpiderTech flexed its muscles in the men’s road race Saturday night, pulling off a 1-2-3 sweep in a race of attrition featuring a nasty climb up Rattlesnake Point Hill. Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C. added the road title to his time trial victory on Thursday, followed by teammates Will Routley of Abbotsford, B.C. and Zach Bell of Watson Lake, Yukon.

“I think Steve Bauer’s doing an amazing job with SpiderTech,” Hughes said. “It’s an exciting time for Canadian cycling.”

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