As the eyes of the world turn from Tokyo 2020 towards the ice and snow of Beijing 2022, there is no one better qualified than Clara Hughes (CAN) to sum up just what it is that makes the Olympic Games so enduringly special. Clara shares her wisdom and story on The Ice Skating Podcast.
After all, this is an athlete who won six medals in two different sports across three summer and three winter Games. She has made her mark as the most extraordinary Olympian of the modern age.
“The potential of the Olympics is the shining of the human spirit,” Hughes said. “My greatest lessons came from the Squamish Nation in 2010 [in British Columbia, prior to Vancouver 2010]. I was told by a leader in that community that you can only want to be great yourself if you want that greatness for everyone around you, every one of your competitors. You have to want them to be successful.
“As much as the Olympics is competitive – and I was, and still am in some ways – you have to have that idea of the collective, of humanity.”
This may be a surprising message from an athlete who dominated as both a Speed Skater and a cyclist, but Hughes has never been one to confirm to stereotype. The seeming epitome of the Olympic mantra ‘Higher Faster Stronger’, Hughes used her fame to bring mental health in sport to the front pages.
After following up her two cycling bronze medals from the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games with a pair of Speed Skating medals at Torino 2006, Hughes chose her moment to speak out. And arguably it opened up the conversation which eventually allowed gymnast Simone Biles to take her courageous steps at Tokyo 2020.
“When I look back to the beginning of the Let’s Talk Campaign it was this ‘wow, someone who is so good at something can have struggled with depression, with addiction, with mood disorder’. And now it is so much more normalised,” Hughes said.
“I do see a cascade effect. It’s cool to have been at the start of this conversation.”
The conversation Hughes started became so big and so widespread that she realised in 2017 that she needed to change. In a move that perhaps should not be so surprising, given the way Hughes has spent a lifetime confounding expectations, she slowed right down.
“I felt it in winter and summer sport, and I also felt it with the level of advocacy I was doing with mental health, It was time to step away,” Hughes explained.
“I actually ended up stepping away from everything, because I realised I had spent so much time talking, sharing, opening up, that I felt in a way that I had become disconnected with myself.”
So instead of winning races or urging people to act, Hughes took to the deserted paths and trails of North America. In the space of a few years she trekked more than 20,000km, mostly alone.
“It’s been a really cool journey of coming full circle, of fast movement, of a lot of talking, a lot of sharing to the silence and slow, slow pace of just moving along with my backpack in solitude,” she said.
It has led the only person to ever win multiple summer and winter Olympic medals to a place where she can now do both: advocate for change and look after her own mental health. And she, like most sports fans, cannot wait for the next Olympic Games already looming large on the horizon.
“I look at these superhuman, super people at all levels and in every sport and I am in awe of them,” Hughes said. “I remember being able to skate really fast. My body won’t do it anymore, but my heart and my mind are always ready on that start line to unleash a beautiful skating motion.”