Interview with Clara Hughes – is 2012 her Last Olympics?

Interviewer: BARBARA


Barbara: A couple of months after the 2012 Games, you turn 40. It’s awesome you are able to do what you do at this stage in your life.



CLARA Physiologically, I’m actually in my prime as an endurance athlete. Other female athletes who have been world-class and succeeded even later in life are my inspiration and motivation. I really want to be that for other women – to show women and girls what’s possible. I want to bust the ridiculous imposed limitations. Of course, I’m working my body intelligently with a fantastic team that helps me reach a potential that, as a young athlete, I had no idea existed. I’m improving and stronger than I ever have been at this point in training.



B You’re busting the myth that as the body matures 
it becomes less useful – especially for women.



C Yes! If you take care of yourself; if you’re active; if you lead a healthier life, it’s amplified. The possibilities are limitless. I take really good care of myself as an athlete, in my overall life, my state-of-mind, and how I nourish my body and brain to get the most out of myself. And the most important thing for me is having clarity in what I do.



B Do you train a lot every day?



C As a speed skater I trained a lot, but it’s even more as a cyclist. I love endurance training. If I’m on my bike five or six hours, it’s a good day.



B So, every day you do what you love.



C I do. If the weather is good on the weekend, I’ll ride four to five hours on Saturday and Sunday. When I’m incredibly fatigued, I bring myself back to the thought and the reality, which is: I get to enjoy the outdoors and ride the routes I love, and my spirit lifts. Everyone connects to cycling, at all stages of life; it makes them feel like a kid again. It still does for me, even after cycling tens of thousands of kilometres. I still love it. 

Then there are days like today, when I train indoors prepping with my coach. It was an absolute ‘suffer-fest.’ Although I only rode for two hours, 30 minutes of that was beyond comprehension – beyond my conventional levels of suffering. But I had to endure; that’s part of my training. It’s part of the process to become world-class; pushing yourself hard. I enjoy the satisfaction of getting through this type of training. But was it enjoyable? No! And it’s not good for your health. When I stop training at this level, I’m not going to miss it.



B How do you plan your days to keep energized?



C It comes down to basic nutrition, hydration and time management. I have a clear idea of what I need to do daily and then I can gauge my time appropriately. My priorities are training and recovery, and good health. Everything is organized around that. One thing for sure is that I always have good food to eat – always!



B What constitutes ‘good food’ for you?



C A lot of fruits and vegetables; more vegetables than fruits. I don’t eat wheat so I have good sources of complex carbohydrates available: rice, quinoa or gluten-free breads. I get my nutrition from natural sources, which takes a lot of planning. It’s important that I keep my iron at a good level for my body to get the benefits of training at high altitudes. My immune system is depressed because of my training levels, but if I get sick I can’t train, so taking care of my health is top priority. I also take the time to sit and breathe to clear my head before I step into the next thing. I have days where I run around a lot, but I make sure I recover from that, too, because energy is most important for me.



B How does it feel to be a world-class Canadian?



C Honestly, I don’t think about that. I’m very focused on my goals and dreams, doing everything I can to be on the starting line for what’s important to me with no regrets, knowing I did everything I possibly could.



B Where do you pull this drive from?



C It’s definitely in my character. I’m really competitive. I like a challenge. I don’t give up, and I don’t want to know what that’s like. If I had quit my workout today because it was difficult, all I’d be thinking about was that I quit. I’m a role model for a lot of kids and parents: if I quit, what am I showing them? That it’s okay to quit. I get to live that challenge. Overcoming my training difficulties, whether they are physical or emotional, I can actually be proud of it and pass that on to others. Then the advice and encouragement I give has power because it comes from a place of truth.



B Many people would be surprised to learn you were 
a ‘wild child’ – a ‘beer bearer’ before you were the flag bearer. (We have a little giggle.)



C Yes. This part of my history helped form who I am today. My tenacity comes from that edge, from getting into trouble as a teen in Winnipeg and then being inspired to become a better person. Sport definitely fostered excellence in me. I’m really proud of that transformation and really lucky to have been inspired at a very critical time in my life! So now it’s up to me to pass this message on to parents dealing with troubled kids, so they can see that there are possibilities and hope. You never know what can happen when a kid is inspired and exposed to the right things.



B As a teenager, your parents encouraged your dreams. Did this make a difference for you?



C Definitely. I was encouraged at home, but I wasn’t encouraged everywhere, including today. People tell me I’m too old to do this and ask when I’m going to quit. No matter what you’re doing, someone will say, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Their judgement comes from self-imposed limitations or fears. 

With young people, it’s more difficult without family support. So, I encourage them to seek school counsellors and other people who will support their dreams, while still respecting their family. And, I encourage parents not to limit their kids. Imagine if my mom told me I was crazy when, as a teenage delinquent, I told her I was going to the Olympics. I wouldn’t be here. Instead she said, “Alright, I’ll see what I can do,” and got me involved in speed skating because I was interested. That changed the course of my life.



B You share another important part of yourself with Bell’s Let’s Talk Campaign.



C I’m truly proud of this. It was tough going through depression. 

I wasn’t ashamed of my actions in my delinquent teen years, but didn’t feel that anybody wanted to hear about it. But when I started speaking about those times, there was an incredible response from Canadian parents. They related to how their children were acting, and were encouraged that since I made it through those hard times and became successful, that there’s hope for their children. This is the intention I have in sharing my story of depression. Although, it’s incredibly difficult to talk about, even when I make light of it, I firmly believe it’s started to make a difference, even if in a small way, to help break down the stigma of mental illness. And, that’s important to me.

Any form of mental illness is like living with an 
addiction: you live with it for the rest of your life. My 
husband and I are both aware of when I go into dark places and what I need to do to come out of it. It’s 
important to have support. When I travel throughout Canada, I see homeless people; many are obviously dealing with a mental illness that may even be 
undiagnosed. I feel for them because I think, “That could be me.”



B Do you think some of your darkest moments have contributed to your brightest moments?



C Yes. I think it’s pretty common that people who are high achievers have incredible highs and it’s gotta go somewhere. The brightness and the darkness are big parts of me, so I stay aware of my emotions and fatigue levels. However, I don’t live in fear. When I’m in a good place, I don’t take it for granted. I have moments of gratitude for being of sound body and mind. I’m really aware of living in the moment and being mindful. I have to be when I’m on the Oval. It’s a beautiful thing to lose yourself in the moment. You don’t have to be an athlete to experience this; just take a nice walk or bike ride.



B Tell us about your trip to Great Slave Lake.



C It was magical and a living hell at the same time. I hated kayaking. I had nerve damage in my arm from day four, and the whole time I was terrified I’d drown. But the experience of moving through that landscape, being attached and engaged with my surroundings, and with the lovely Dene, Chipewyan people, got me through. I’ll never forget that life experience. 
What was actually pretty traumatic and terrifying at 
moments was surprisingly one of the most beautiful experiences because I felt connected. No matter how hard a situation, there’s always something or someone beautiful to connect with to bring you light.



B Look for the beautiful even in the hard times.



C Yes, during hard times you may not always be able to see it. But that’s the human condition, the suffering, the joy, and the potential of the human being on both ends of the spectrum. 

It’s important to see the effect basic human kindness has on others. Our world can be a cold place; 
remember that a smile or a ‘hello’ can mean a lot to 
a person. It does to me. When people smile at me it makes me feel happy.



B I know you’re passionate about Right To Play. Do you get to speak to Canadian kids, too?



C I do. I spoke to 700 students at the Collingwood School in North Vancouver. They were so hooked on the 2010 Olympics I relived it there with them – so much fun! I shared what it means to me to be a champion and how I became one; that for me it’s being a champion human. I believe that being Canadian includes looking for ways to reach out and give back to make the community, the country or the world a better place. I love to inspire young people, to share what I do and plant the seeds of possibility.



B The 2012 Games are closing in. How’s it going?



C Really well! Honestly, if I’m not good enough, I don’t want to be there. I’m not interested in taking a spot because of the things I’ve done. Only if I’m good enough and competitive enough.



B Being your best every day.



C That’s what I try to do.



B What’s one thing you’d love to leave readers with?



C Don’t ever underestimate your ability to be a role model and inspire others. You don’t have to be a superstar or an athlete. Don’t underestimate your potential. Look at how you can reach out to others, even if it’s a smile.



B Thank you Clara.

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