Bruce Arthur | Aug 1, 2012 2:20 PM ET
LONDON — Clara Hughes has always known how to suffer. She was given an astonishing body, one capable of transformation and performance, a tool, but none of that mattered without the willingness to suffer. She knew how to do it, swam in it. It’s part of what made her great.
That suffering is over, now, to be replaced by more of an ache. On Wednesday Clara Hughes crossed the finish line of the Olympic women’s cycling time trial at 1:41 local time, and with that her brilliant Olympic career ended, 16 years and six medals after it began. She did not win a seventh medal; she finished fifth. She smiled for all of us, one last time.
“It was the best I had,” Hughes said, sitting on her bike, spent. “Honestly, I can’t stand here and make any excuses for finishing fifth; I was fifth place today. It was the best that I had in my legs and my heart and my head. I’m disappointed because I always expect more of myself … but when I look at my effort and what I did and what I put into this, and my approach and everything that led up to this point — it was everything. There were just four people better than me.
“I mean, it felt good — good in the sense that it felt like hell, because it was a time trial, and it was 38 minutes of suffering, but in the sense of what my effort was I suffered, and that means it was a good race. So that was everything.”
That’s all, and what a career. It’s not that we’ve taken her for granted for all these years, but good lord, look at what she did. Nobody had ever won multiple medals at both the summer and Winter Olympics before Clara Hughes, former teenage cigarette smoker and layabout from Winnipeg, did it. To even attempt it was the sporting equivalent of parachuting out over the Himalayas, just to see what you’d find.
To attempt this was one last jump, one more act of rooftop daring, and London was the landing, and she was done. Hughes, 39, was third at the first time check, but she was fifth at the second, and she finished the 29-kilometre in the same place she did at the world championships. Hughes admitted offhandedly that she had suffered a fractured vertebrae in a crash at the race in Gatineau, Que. in May, and trained for six weeks with the injury, but she made no excuses. This was what she had left.
“I’ve been through a lot the last couple months, and it’s been hard, it’s been really hard,” Hughes said. “Had a couple really bad crashes. This sport is terrifying — I don’t know if you guys can realize how terrifying it was to be in that road race the other day. There’s this sport that I took 10, 12 years away from and all of a sudden I’m in that, and it is absolutely terrifying. I put my life at risk doing this sport, and that’s one thing that I don’t feel too good about. That’s not really worth it to me. I’m a little old for that. And I’ve had that feeling a few time this year with some really terrible crashes. I’m not going to miss that.”
But she will miss being an Olympian. The winner was a 38-year-old, as it happens; an American named Kristin Armstrong who had a son two years ago and came back to win, but she was a dedicated cyclist who won gold in Beijing. Hughes was, after 12 years, a tourist trying to live in the city she used to call home, as best she could. She patted a picture of her friend, the late Toronto Star journalist Randy Starkman, that was pinned up in the mixed zone. She smiled.
“I knew today, I knew in the last week and the last month that this was the last time I’ll have the chance to race the Olympics, so I’m really proud of what I did,” she said. “Sorry if anyone feels disappointed, but that was it. And you know, Randy’s here with us, I like that, Randy. I had him in my heart these whole Olympics. I had a lot of people in my heart these whole Olympics. I was inspired, just like every other time I’ve been inspired by the potential and the chance and the opportunity. And I gave everything I had, I just wasn’t good enough.
“I’m just really thankful that I got the opportunity to do this one last time, that I was good enough to represent Canada, and unfortunately wasn’t good enough to represent Canada on the podium. But I can be really proud of what I did.”
So can we. Clara Hughes may be the greatest Olympian our nation has ever produced; speed skater Cindy Klassen also has six medals, but no human being has ever done what Clara has done, so it’s not hard to make the argument. When asked how she wanted her Olympic career remembered, though, Hughes took a moment to think, leaning on her bike, looking down.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe that I usually just did things with a smile. I think I can win with a smile and I can lose with a smile as well, because I never fail in emptying myself in what I do. I never fail in approaching what I do in the best way. So that’s what I’m most satisfied with, and I hope that people will maybe remember the way I did what I did, not what I did, but the way in which I did it.”
Hughes said she was going to drink beer with her husband to celebrate, and we should all lift a glass. She did all this because one day in Winnipeg she saw Gaetan Boucher skating on TV, and there are surely little girls out there who started cycling or skating after seeing Clara smile. Little boys, too. She has given us all she had, over and over, and the last time what she had wasn’t enough to be in the top three in the world.
And that’s okay. It’s done, and Canada should just say this: Thank you, Clara Hughes. Thank you for everything.
Postmedia Olympic Team