The obsession began 22 years ago. A eureka moment in the living room of her mother’s Winnipeg home, watching the great Gaétan Boucher try to turn back time and win his fifth Olympic speed skating medal for Canada, at the ripe old age of 29. He finished a distant 14th in the 500-m at the 1988 Calgary Games, and fifth in his specialty, the 1000-m. But it is his 1500-m race that Clara Hughes can still see in her mind. How Boucher gave everything he had, pumping his way through the final turns in visible agony and diving toward the line, only to look up at the scoreboard and see he had come ninth. The failure was noble, and the effort heroic. And from that moment on, a lonely, sullen teenager had found a goal. She joined a local speed skating club that same week.
Eight years later, Hughes was on her bike waiting at the start line for the women’s road race in Atlanta, her Olympic dream about to become a reality at age 23. She remembers looking to her left and right at the flags emblazoned on the jerseys of her competitors and then down at the red maple leaf on her own chest. “My heart felt like it was going to burst,” she says. “I had the power and strength of the nation inside of me. I had never felt so Canadian.” She won bronze that day, finishing 31 seconds behind Jeannie Longo of France, a gold medallist at age 37. Before the Games were over, Hughes had captured another bronze in women’s time trial. And she knew she had found her calling. “It’s much more than a job. It’s much more than even a passion,” she says. “It’s so powerful, so strong, and it has created so much meaning in my life. And I haven’t been able to not answer it so far.”
London will be Hughes’s sixth Olympics, and give her a third Summer Games to match the three Winter ones already on her resumé. With six medals in her sock drawer, the now-39-year-old is currently in a tie with fellow Winnipegger Cindy Klassen for bragging rights as Canada’s most successful Olympian. But Hughes’s athletic feats are arguably more impressive. After again competing in cycling at the 2000 Sydney Games, where she placed sixth in the time trial, she switched back to speed skating and won a 5000-m bronze two years later in Salt Lake City. In Turin in 2006, she took gold over the same punishing distance, and added a silver in team pursuit. And on home soil in Vancouver in 2010, where she proudly carried the Canadian flag for the opening ceremonies, she once again captured 5000-m bronze. She is one of only four athletes who have ever won Olympic medals in both Summer and Winter sports, and the only woman with multiple podium finishes in each season.
Everyone had thought that Vancouver was the end of her glorious career. A presumption that Hughes didn’t exactly go out of her way to dispel. “I raced my last Olympic race the same way I raced my first Olympic race,” she told reporters. “That was just going for it, with no fear, with no inhibitions.” What didn’t get specified that day at the Richmond Oval, was that Hughes only meant “on ice.” She had a secret that she hadn’t even shared with her coaches. Clara was determined to take one more crack at cycling gold.
The idea had first started forming in the fall of 2007. Sitting at her breakfast table, looking over the results from the women’s time trial at the World Cycling Championships, Hughes saw that it was her contemporaries from Atlanta and Sydney who were collecting all the medals. “I told my husband, Peter, ‘I’m so totally in there still.’ ” Her initial impulse was to pull out her bike and start training for Beijing the next summer. But after a few days of hard thought, she decided that she wanted to keep all of her energy focused on skating well in Vancouver, and that the comeback could wait.
The urge only got stronger when the CBC hired her to be their colour commentator for cycling at the 2008 Games. During her three weeks in China, she casually mentioned her ambitions to a few former colleagues and coaches. They thought she was joking.
Hughes gave herself some time after Vancouver, wanting to make sure that the high of a home Games wasn’t clouding her judgment about the challenges ahead. That summer, she and Peter spent six weeks camping and kayaking along the shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. They returned to their home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships with a decision. “I didn’t just want it,” she says. “I knew I had the capacity to do it.” By the time the news of her cycling comeback made it into the press—the same week in 2010 she was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame—she had been training for months. The initial plan was to try not only for the road races time trial in London, but a track cycling medal as well, as part of Canada’s women’s pursuit team.
Her first bike race in more than a decade came in March 2011 at the world track championships. Her team finished sixth. When the outdoor season arrived, things got more promising. In her first major test—the Pan Am Championships in Columbia—Hughes won both the road race and the time trial. In June, she won the Canadian time trial title, giving her the 18th national championship of her biking career. And at the Worlds in Copenhagen in September, she place fifth in the same discipline. Afterwards, she made the decision to abandon the track dream and concentrate on the road events.
The off-season was spent training at her winter base in the mountains of Utah. Lots of long rides through the hill country—sometimes as much as seven hours at a time—punishing gym workouts, and endless interval sessions on the bike that she has set up in the basement. It’s the same spartan life she embraced as a speed skater at the national training centre in Calgary, although it’s a lot more isolated (her Montreal-based cycling coach Chris Rozdilsky charts her progress via emails and phone calls). And if anything, the exhaustion might be worse. “Biking kind of makes you dumb, because you’re pushing the endurance so much,” she says. “I get tired reading.” Having burnt out on the sport once before—overtraining was a contributing factor to the bout of depression that she went through post-Atlanta and her eventual decision to return to speed skating—she is careful to try and keep some balance. Although Hughes’s idea of moderation still looks like most people’s flat-out. “Unless I’m really broken in half, I don’t quit,” she says. “I don’t want to know that option. I don’t want to have it in my brain that there’s a way out.”
Xiuli Wang, the taskmaster coach who guided Hughes’s speed skating career for more than a decade, was taken by surprise when Clara returned to cycling, but mostly because her star pupil had been musing about moving on to ultra-marathons. Wang has no doubts, however, about what will happen when the gun goes off in London. Over three Winter Games, Hughes never disappointed her, she says. For she is one of those rare athletes who not only thrives under pressure, but is at her absolute best when confronted with the impossible. “She believes in herself. It makes her special, not just in sport, but in life,” says Wang. “And this time, I believe that she will change the colour of that medal.”
The run-up to the 2012 Games has been up and down. Hughes won a spot on the Specialized-Lululemon women’s pro team for the season, which has allowed her to contest more and better races. But in her return to the elite European circuit in April, she crashed into an earthen embankment near the finish of her first race, snapping her bike frame in half, and ultimately crossed the line 45th. Two weeks later in the Netherlands, she placed eighth. She also took a hard spill at the Tour de Gatineau in May, wiped out by fellow Canadian Rhae Shaw, that sent her to hospital for X-rays on her back and left her in considerable pain for weeks. Things got so bad that her husband had to help dress her, although Hughes never stopped training and racing. More recently, however, the trajectory has improved with a third-overall finish against a strong international field in the Exergy Tour race in Idaho, and yet another national time trial title at the Canadian championships in June. (Hughes placed second in the road race in a photo finish with Shaw, who was left off the Olympic team.) And in one of the last big tune-ups before the Games, the women’s Giro d’Italia in early July, Hughes came second in the time-trial stage, five seconds from victory.
After almost two years back on the bike, Hughes says she finally feels like the gap that existed between her and the sport’s elite has closed. “I’m stronger. My engine is so primed right now that I feel like I’m a motorbike. I have to hold myself back.” And her advancing age—she’ll celebrate her 40th birthday at the end of September—doesn’t appear to be much of a factor. Judith Arndt of Germany, currently ranked second in the world, will turn 36 in London. Ina Teutenberg, another German and teammate from Specialized-Lululemon, is 38 and ranked fourth. Amber Neben of the U.S., ranked sixth, is 37. And until her loss at the French national trials in late June, it seemed possible that Jeannie Longo, now 53, was going to make it to her seventh Summer Games. (Longo captured her 59th national title in 2011, but came fifth in the time trial this year, competing under a shadow after Patrice Ciprelli, her coach and husband, was charged for possessing performance-enhancing drugs in February.)
Hughes is candid about what the dream is for London—a podium finish. But her goal is something different. Her proudest Olympic moment so far isn’t the gold she won in Turin, but rather her 5000-m race in Vancouver. Not because it won her a bronze, she explains, but because it was the best she could have ever hoped to skate. “It was my absolute potential. I finished that race knowing that was it. It was beautiful.” If she can come close to matching that sort of pure, all-out effort in the 140-km-long road race, or the 28-km time trial, she will be content. “I didn’t have the maturity and the experience and the training mechanisms to reach my potential in this sport when I left,” says Hughes. “But in 10 years of speed skating, I discovered a whole new level of focus.”
And whatever the outcome, it’s not clear that this will really be Hughes’s final Games. After 22 years, the endless cycle of training and racing has become so deeply engrained that she has difficulty envisioning life without its punishments and rewards. “Having to try and meet the challenge—not just for a day, or a week, or a month, but always—that’s what keeps me connected to this beautiful thing, the Olympics,” she says. “It’s completely out of the ordinary and bizarre, but also extraordinary in so many ways.” A majestic addiction that enriches us all.
Clara Hughes competes in the road race on Sunday, July 29, and the time trial on Wednesday, Aug. 1.
On the Olympics
The first time I tried to make an Olympics was way back in 1992. It was for track cycling and the individual pursuit. I made the podium at trials, finishing third. But there was only one spot available. Making the podium sounds better than last place, right?
What you read can be far from reality. Words can be twisted and pictures can be painted that look so nice in print or video. I found out very clearly that first try that no matter how good people thought I was, no matter what I had done in the past, no matter what was written about me or what I said I thought I could and would do: none of this would help me when I got to the starting line. Never have I been so alone in my athletic life than in those moments of silence, waiting for the gun to go off. It takes a tremendous amount of inner focus to be ready for this moment of truth; to face oneself and unleash all that has built inside for days, months, years . . . or even decades.
Blog entry, May 2012
As a speed skater, perspective came from training with the national team every day. We followed the program like good soldiers under the guidance of the ultimate drill sergeant: coach Xiuli Wang. There was no doubt we trained harder than anyone in the world of speed skating. I spent 10 years in a state of exhaustion, which led to some monumental moments of success. Fast-forward to the life of a cyclist, with a new coach, Chris Rozdilsky. Xiuli and Chris come from two very different worlds, but they are both tough as nails, understand what it takes to win, and are not shy to create and demand the training to achieve world-class results. The big difference is that I’m not with my coach day in and day out anymore. Is there less loathing and more love to the training pain because of distance? Not necessarily. I find myself sending curse emails to Chris, calling him mean and cruel, but they always end with “thanks, Coach.”
Blog entry, January 2012
The race began and I wanted to quit. Less than 50 km into the race I wanted to quit. I could have quit and everyone would have understood. The team was fine without me and the race situation we set was more than ideal. I could pull out and stop the bone-chilling rain from settling into my core and it would be okay.
But it would not be okay with me. There’s something about quitting that just does not sit well. I always think about what I would say to a kid at the finish area if they asked, “Why did you stop?” There are no words to justify this other than broken bones or a catastrophic situation that has myriad forms in bike racing. Cold rain does not qualify. Fatigue does not qualify.
My teeth still hurt from the chattering. But I finished that race.
Blog entry, April 2012