In her stellar six Olympic career for Canada, Clara Hughes has never made excuses. On the rare occasions she has failed to live up to her own high expectations—somehow even more elevated than her country’s hopes—she has always placed the blame squarely on her own shoulders. It’s never been about the weather, or the preparation, or the coaching, or how she feels. Clara wants to win more than anything in the world. And when it doesn’t happen her own sense of disappointment is more acute that anyone can possibly imagine.
The odds were always stacked against her for today’s time trial at Hampton Court—the summer palace that Henry VIII built down the Thames from London. She’s 39 years old. Her last Summer Olympics were in Sydney in 2000. And when she returned to cycling after winning four medals for Canada as a speed skater over three Winter Games, it had been more than a dozen years since she had ridden a bike for anything but exercise and pleasure.
Still, Clara believed, and because of that so did the rest of us. She won the national time trial title, and then a spot on an elite road racing team. She easily secured an Olympic berth. And her hopes for a medal were realistic.
Starting 19th out of 24 competitors in a format that sees the strongest riders leave last, Hughes was in third place at the 9km mark of the 29km course. But by the second interval, she had dropped to fifth place. And that’s where she remained, crossing the line in 38:28.96, 32 seconds off the podium. Kristen Armstrong, the 38-year-old American rider, took the gold in 37:34.82.
When she met with the media minutes after the finish, Hughes was visibly spent, but, as always, was smiling. “When I look at my placing, you can say that I’m disappointed,” she said. “But when you look at my effort and everything I put into this, I’m not.”
“I felt good—in the sense that it felt like hell. But in terms of what my effort was I suffered, and that means it was good.”
“I gave everything I had, but it just wasn’t good enough.”
Hughes confirmed what everyone has always suspected—this was it—her final, final, final Olympic race. There will be no more comebacks to speed skating, or reinventing herself as a race walker for Rio 2016. She has given her all to Canada, and now it is time for someone else to take up the torch.
Since she closes her career with six medals—two from cycling in Atlanta, and four as a speed skater—she remains tied with former teammate Cindy Klassen atop Canada’s all-time winner list. But there should be no debate that Hughes is the greatest Olympian the country has ever seen. Her accomplishments came in two different sports, in two different seasons, and she was among the world’s best from the very start to the very end.
“I really hope people will remember me for what I did,” she said today, when asked to sum up her legacy. “And also, the way I did it.”
Hughes says she really hasn’t given much thought to what comes next. The immediate priority is to go and enjoy some beers with her husband, Peter, then to enjoy the rest of the Olympics. She will ride her bike for pleasure. And then, she’ll figure out how to bring her awesome focus and drive to something else, which surely be to the benefit of us all.
Towards the end of the media scrum, Hughes finally let slip a little secret. A horrible crash at a road race in Gatineau, Quebec in late May, left her with a fractured vertebrae.
“I was racing and training with a broken back for six weeks.”
She had blogged about the pain and discomfort, but she had never disclosed the severity of the injury.
Hughes said that was because she didn’t want to talk about it.
But a truer answer was that she didn’t want any excuse that would lessen expectations—her own, or anyone else’s.
Clara Hughes came fifth, but she didn’t disappoint. She never has.