Queen of Speed Still Proving Her Mettle

Wayne Scanlan, The Montreal Gazette, Gatineau, Quebec

While the royal visit of Kate and William is still weeks away, a different type of royalty will be in the Ottawa-Gatineau region this weekend.

Olympic royalty. Regard: Canada’s red-haired heroine.

Clara Hughes, the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in Summer and Winter Olympic Games, is riding in the Grand Prix Cycliste Gatineau, which includes a UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) time trial on Thursday and a road race on a similar circuit Saturday.

Centre stage are the women’s events, the only women’s UCI Category I races in Canada this year.

Legendary French rider Jeannie Longo, a winner of 30 Olympic or world championship medals, will be among the riders facing a Canadian team of Annie Ewart, Julia Garnet, Cara Gillis, Leah Guloien, Leah Kirchmann and Hughes. National road champ Joelle Numainville will be defending her Gatineau title and reigning world champion Giorgia Bronzini of Italy is another featured rider.

The premier attraction, though, is Hughes, whose grace, grit and generosity of spirit have elevated her to a special place in the hearts of Canadians.

Where to begin with Hughes?

We could talk about her early days in Winnipeg when the breakup of her parents’ marriage led to several wayward years as Hughes skipped school, drank beer and used soft drugs. At 16, by then in the habit of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, Hughes was watching TV one day when she stumbled upon Canadian speedskating legend Gaetan Boucher, about to start the 1,500-metre race at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.

Hughes was mesmerized by Boucher, by the sport, and decided in that instant she was going to become a speedskater, transforming her life.

Or is it her place in the global village that is Clara’s most endearing quality?

Newspapers could be piled knee-deep with stories about impoverished Canadian amateur athletes, and yet in 2006, when Hughes won her first Olympic speedskating gold medal in the 5,000-metre, she donated $10,000 of her personal savings to the Right to Play movement, an international foundation started by the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Committee and Norwegian skater Johann Olav Koss.

At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, by which time Canadian athletes were rewarded for medals, Hughes gave $10,000 in prize money to Take A Hike, an alternative education program that empowers at risk youth in East Vancouver.

Perhaps we should focus on the latest comeback of this six-time Olympic medallist, a return to competitive cycling at age 38 with a goal of reaching the podium in London next summer.

While Hughes won two gold medals at the Pan American championships in Colombia two weeks ago, essentially destroying her competition in the road race and individual time trial, the field at the 2012 Olympic Games in London will be another matter. In London, Hughes is eyeing the time trial and team pursuit, an event that she teamed up with world champion track rider Tara Whitten of Edmonton and Laura Brown of Vancouver to finish sixth at the March world championships.

Her new coach, Chris Rozdilsky, says that while Hughes has work to do in the latest transition to cyclist from skater, he has rarely worked with a more committed, open-minded athlete.

“She’s definitely the full package,” Rozdilsky says. “It’s fun to get an athlete like that. She’s fully motivated and open to anything new. Some athletes are very narrow minded and only do what they know.”

Denise Kelly, the women’s endurance development coach for the Canadian Cycling Association was riding in her final international race when Hughes made her international debut at the 1991 Pan Am Games in Cuba. Hughes won silver and bronze medals in those games, the latter medal shared with Kelly in the team time trial event.

Kelly calls Hughes the “consummate, consummate professional . . . she is very determined, very focused … her best races are otherworldly.”

Once a gift to the speedskating program, Hughes is once again a gift to Canadian cycling, and an inspiration for female athletes across the country.

When she isn’t training, Hughes loves to paint landscapes and to get away from it all by . . . getting away from it all — adventure travel. Naturally, because it involves Hughes and husband Peter Guzman, the travel generally involves massive hikes, treks and kayak adventures. The couple make their home off a dusty country road in Glen Sutton, Que., a short jog from the Vermont border.

Just for “fun” in 2007, Hughes scaled several mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada range of Southern California, cycling climbs she calculated at 56,000 feet of elevation from start to finish.

It was my good fortune to be covering cycling events at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when Hughes blazed onto the scene with a pair of bronze medals, lighting up the podium with her red hair, quick humour and ebullient smile. Watching her willingly suffer in the time trial, cycling’s so-called ’Race of Truth’ in thick 30 C Georgia heat, it was obvious Hughes was going to be something special.

“I was seeing double,” Hughes told us after the event. “I have a friend who used to say she’d see Elvis when she got in that zone. I think I saw Elvis at the finish line.”

Rozdilsky says the ’96 time trial was classic Clara, a “massive result from wanting it more than anybody else. The mind can do amazing things if you have that super focus. And you just kind of dig, and pour every molecule of your body into that effort — that’s what she did there. That was all guts, that ride.”

Fast forward 15 years. Hughes shares the Canadian Olympic record of six Olympic medals with fellow speedskater Cindy Klassen. Only a fool would bet against Hughes winning a seventh in London.

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