There’s home-ice advantage, and then there’s having your home just metres from the ice. A year and a half ago, Clara Hughes, one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians, rented an apartment with her husband a short walk from the Richmond speed skating oval. The move let her train on the very ice she would race on during the Olympics, while providing her with all the creature comforts of home—her own bed, her own kitchen, and more importantly, her own espresso machine. It worked. In the final race of her long and shining career, a beaming Hughes took home the bronze in the 5,000-m race.
But living in the Vancouver area all this time did something else for the 37-year-old skater. Last summer, while out for a drive downtown, Hughes took a wrong turn and found herself in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, the gritty neighbourhood that’s home to thousands of souls who’ve taken their own wrong turn in life. The sight shocked her. “I couldn’t believe I was in Canada, that this reality exists in our country,” she said the day after her race. “People were just shells of themselves. It was surreal.” So Hughes, who suffered her own problems with alcohol and drugs as a teen, announced she will give her $10,000 winner’s bonus to the Take a Hike Foundation, a sport group that helps troubled youth. “I feel like I can leave town now, that I didn’t just come and skate in circles, because it always meant more to me than that.”
Only Hughes could win an Olympic medal on home soil and chalk it up to skating around in circles. But that’s Hughes. She is someone who can say “I don’t focus on medals” and truly mean it, yet at the same time channel all her energy to push her body to the limit in competition. As role models go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one, a quality she strives for. There’s a reason Canadian Olympic organizers selected her to carry the flag during the opening ceremonies.
But not only is Hughes one of the most charming and disarming athletes at the Vancouver Games, she could well be the best Olympic athlete of all time. No other person has ever won multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. What’s more, she earned her victories in the gruelling, long-distance sports of cycling and speed skating. Under the entry in the dictionary for Olympian, it should read simply: “See Clara Hughes.”
To truly grasp how remarkable Hughes’s achievements have been, it helps to go back to 2000, when Hughes hung up her bike shoes and took her skates off the wall. By that point, she’d already won multiple medals and world championships as a cyclist. At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, she took home two bronze medals. She had a disappointing finish in Sydney four years later. After suffering a virus for five weeks that left her coughing and feeling like she was drowning in her own phlegm, Hughes placed 43rd out of 58 competitors.
But she didn’t let the defeat keep her down long. Just two months later, she made the stunning decision to not just switch sports, but switch seasons, from summer to winter. At the age of 30, she hired Xiuli Wang, a former world-class speed skater from China, as her coach, and began to relearn the rhythm and technique of long-track speed skating (a sport she had abandoned more than a decade earlier). Just 14 weeks after strapping on blades, she placed 11th at the world championships. Less than 10 months after that she was on the podium at Salt Lake with a bronze in the 5,000-m event. By the time Torino came around, she’d upgraded to gold, along with a silver in the team pursuit.
Both sports obviously have one thing in common: speed. But there’s also the element of pain, and her ability to push through it. “Pain is pain,” she wrote on her blog while training for Vancouver. “Endurance sport allows for no escape from it.”
Before the Games, Hughes had been invited to take part in an Aboriginal smudging ceremony with the four host First Nations, a chance to “have all the demons brushed off.” So she was well-prepared both physically and psychologically to race the punishing 5,000-m in Vancouver. From the moment the gun went off, she looked strong. With each lap, the clock showed her picking up speed, and with each lap the crowd roared louder. “It fed me,” she said later. “It was pure sugar out there and it sustained me.”
Hughes finished the race in six minutes, 55.73 seconds—a track record—with arms raised high in the air and beaming that characteristic smile. Though two other skaters, the Czech Republic’s Martina Sablikova and Stephanie Beckert of Germany, were faster that day, Hughes’s bronze earned her her sixth medal, tying her with fellow skater Cindy Klassen as the most decorated Canadian athlete in history. Not that Hughes counts such things. “I don’t focus on my personal medal count or the team’s medal count,” she said. “I look at the human behind the performance, the look in their eyes, what they brought to the field of play.”
As for what comes next, Hughes has plenty of opportunities before her. She’s tremendously well-spoken and through her charity work has travelled around Africa. But now that she’s competed in her last race, will she miss the thrill and excitement of the Olympics? Not at all. “I raced my last Olympic race the same way I raced my first Olympic race,” she said. “That was just going for it, with no fear, with no inhibitions. It was just me out there, and I felt I brought my best to the stage throughout.”