SURREY, ENGLAND – Almost two hours away from the Olympic Park, Clara Hughes rides her bike through the postcard-like streets of Surrey, her expressive eyes looking everywhere, breathing in, taking in everything in what is certain to be her last Olympic Games.
“I want to unleash everything I have,” said the woman who best exemplifies all that is right about the Olympics.
You spend time with Clara Hughes and you have to believe in her, you have to see the world through her captivating eyes. You just do.
Hughes is 39 years old now, and openly refers to herself as a case study. This is either her sixth or seventh Olympics, Winter and Summer, depending on whether you count the one in which she worked as a television commentator. This will be her last as an athlete.
“I went to my first Olympics as a 23-year-old and a lot of people told me in the lead-up, you’re going to get experience for next time. Well, there might not be a next time,” said Hughes, looking at her 20-something teammates almost the way a mother would her children. “And for all of us, this is the chance of a lifetime, a chance for us to show how developed women’s cycling is. It’s a team sport.
“I love helping people win, but I also know how to win. And anyone who under-estimates that ability in me, well, I wish them luck.”
Her first event, the road race, in tandem with the kids — Denise Ramsden, 21, of Yellowknife and Joelle Numainville, 24, of Montreal — goes Sunday on the second real day of Olympic competition. It’s been almost a lifetime since Hughes first burst on the cycling scene, back in the early 90s. She had such a good run in 1993 “that I was drug tested 46 times.”
“I was two years old then,” said Ramsden, joking, kind of.
And now there is this opportunity for Hughes in cycling, the same sport in which she won her first two Olympic medals in Atlanta in 1996 — before her four medals from speed skating in Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver.
These are the bookend Games for her. She won her first medal 16 years ago in her first Games. She wants to finish with her last medal in cycling in her last Games, in a country she adores, at a time when her emotions are many, her perspective raw yet engaging.
“My father’s from England, my ancestors are here. I feel at home being really pasty and pale, and with red hair,” she said, flashing her nationally known smile. “I feel very ordinary, and I kind of like it here.”
She feels ordinary, yet wistful. She can’t help it.
So many in the Canadian Olympic sporting community look around these Games and see the face of Randy Starkman missing. It hits home for those who do the pedaling, those of us who do the writing, that an Olympic staple is missing after the Toronto Star sports writer’s premature passing. Hughes can’t help but think of her friend here, still can’t believe he’s gone.
“Since I’ve been here in London and I’ve been out riding on the time trial course, I’ve been on all these great little roads in this district, Surrey, these little roads that are in the forest and canopied by trees, and I can’t stop thinking about Randy Starkman,” she said. “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 agree with me.
“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.”
Hughes has no doubt of what she is capable of here. One of her remarkable strengths as an athlete has been the ability to get it right on the day it matters most.
“I had no questions if my body could do it,” she said of this last shot. “My body can do anything. It’s a matter of, if I was motivated and if I still had the discipline to apply myself. I didn’t know if I still had it and it took about six months post-Vancouver to make the decision, to realize that I still had that capacity within me. And not only did I have it, but I could improve on it. And that’s what brought me back, because I felt I could improve myself on what I’d done, and moreso, how I had done it.
“Being here and being ready to race — and believe me, I’m ready to race — I’m always wondering what is my goal in this? What’s my objective? And the closer I get, and being in the here and now, I realize that I’ve already achieved being better than I ever have. I’ve already gone about this in a better way, a unique way, and in a beautiful way, for me, individually, personally. And now I just get to do what I’ve trained to do, and do my best at the Olympics.”