RICHMOND, B.C. — Clara Hughes’ love of speedskating began as a teenager, watching Gaetan Boucher compete at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. His determination and heart inspired her to chase her own Olympic dream.
That journey came to a close 22 years later Wednesday with a bronze-medal performance at the Vancouver Games that could trigger a whole new generation of Olympians.
Hughes reached the podium in her final race, on 37-year-old legs whose odometer has been turned over several times. She leaves the sport tied with Cindy Klassen as Canada’s most decorated Olympian, with six medals to her credit.
The Winnipeg native, who now calls Glen Sutton, Que., home, has made her mark as both an elite speedskater and cyclist. But she also touched people with her beaming smile and effervescent personality.
Her work as a humanitarian and environmentalist pushed her beyond a simple athlete. And her love and passion for amateur sports made her a tireless, effective advocate who won’t be easily replaced.
“I’ve definitely always tried to inspire young people to dream, not just to become an athlete but to have goals in life, and in beautiful things like music and arts and education, in anything just to have a positive life and in things that mean something to you, that are worthwhile,” Hughes said during her last post-race news conference, her medallist’s flower bouquet lying before her.
“That’s the example I hope to set, not just for young athletes, but for young people.”
She certainly did that whenever she stepped on the big stage. Hughes is a competitor who never shied away from the spotlight and pressure when it was thrust upon her.
A trip to the podium before an adoring home crowd at the Richmond Olympic Oval was far from a certainty after four years in which she struggled to maintain consistency. She came in as the defending Olympic champion in the gruelling marathon event, and took on the additional burden of serving as flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies, a role that only added to the expectations on her.
But then she showed her trademark fight in finishing a surprising fifth in the 3,000 last week, and looked even more dialed-in skating the draining 5,000 in six minutes 55.73 seconds.
“This is a race I’m very proud of, it hasn’t been easy,” said Hughes. “I’ve been in the trenches for the last four years, always fighting my way back, just trying to figure out better technique and figure out how I can be a better speedskater. It hasn’t always worked out and I feel that it’s been four years of a lot of fight that brought me to this day, to these Olympics and to two great races. I’m really proud, and really pleased.”
Hughes’ time stood as a track record before it was broken twice, first by silver medallist Stephanie Beckert of Germany and then by gold medallist Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic. Sablikova won in 6:50.91, followed by Beckert in 6:51.39, with Hughes feeling she skated one of the best races of her life.
“She’s done it so many times and she did it again today to finish her career with another Olympic medal,” said training partner and friend Kristina Groves of Ottawa, who was sixth.
Hughes was blessed as an athlete with off-the-charts aerobic capacity and a pain threshold that made her a perfect fit for cycling and speedskating. Her X-factor, however, is a relentless determination, something she credits to a difficult childhood in which she experimented with alcohol and drugs as a teenager.
“I don’t come from the most stable, nice upbringing,” she said recently. “I’ve gone through a lot in my life and it’s given me a tenacity and an edge in what I do in sport.”
She first showed flashes of that when she began speedskating in Winnipeg, but eventually fell into cycling where she met Mirek Mazur, a coach who helped her eventually win two bronze medals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She also cycled in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and returned to speedskating afterwards, winning 5,000 bronze at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Four years later she won 5,000 gold and team pursuit silver in Turin, cementing her reputation as a big-event performer.
By then she had grown beyond athletics, speaking out on environmental issues and supporting Right to Play, a humanitarian group dedicated to bringing sports to underprivileged children around the world. At the 2006 Games, she donated $10,000 of her own money to the group.
“I want to stay connected to humanity and contribute the human condition and try to make it a little better maybe,” Hughes said recently. “That’s always been a goal of mine and I feel like as an athlete I have this incredible platform to try and make a difference for people.”
The desire to use that platform in a positive fashion, rather than shy away from it like some athletes, helped earn her an Officer of the Order of Canada and the International Olympic Committee’s sport community award.
Hughes has been vague about her future plans, saying Wednesday that she panned to visit Vancouver’s Granville Island in the next few days to buy an ocean kayak for future trips with husband Peter Guzman. An avid mountain biker, hiker and climber, she’s also worked in the media and is likely to remain to the public eye.
Retirement will also give her a chance to explore her artistic side. In the past she’s taken classes in woodworking, Japanese wood block print-making, and Chinese calligraphy, among other things.
Xiuli Wang, her longtime coach, will be among those to feel her departure most. While they will remain friends, the example Hughes offered to younger skaters will be difficult to replace.
“I think she gave everything to the national team program since she came to speedskating,” said Wang. “If people are smart enough, as younger skaters, they should pick up everything she did.
“And if they’re smart enough, they want to be one of the Clara Hughes in the future, they’ve picked up lots of things with her already. As a coach I will miss her, for sure.”
Hughes always competed with an enviable passion, making her fun to watch.
Before her final race, she stepped up to the line, took several deep breaths, and then focused in with a stare that would scare a bear. She hardly even grimaced during the excruciating 12 1-2 laps, even as her legs burned.
“That crowd, again it was incredible,” she said. “My mom saw me speed-skate live for the first time. My mom was in the audience, my mother-in-law was in the audience, my husband, so many family and friends came from all over North America to watch me skate. And we showed the Dutch what cheering is all about and I’m really proud of this Canadian crowd that’s been here day in and day out.
“They gave me wings on one of the greatest days of my athletic life.”
In typical humble fashion, Hughes also said her record-tying medal total shouldn’t be compared to Klassen’s and hoped that each individual athlete would be looked at on their own merits.
“I don’t think in those terms,” said Hughes. “… I look at Gaetan Boucher, I look at Marc Gagnon, I look at so many amazing speedskaters and athletes in this country. It’s phenomenal the talent we have, and I guess I’m proud to be one of them.”
Klassen, still working her way into top form after double-knee surgery in 2008, finished 12th in 7:22.09.
She’s not sure if it was her last Olympic race. She’s lost a lot of the power that propelled her to the podium five times in Turin and must rely on better technique, something that was never one of her strengths.
“I don’t know, I’ve got to think about it once the season is over,” she said. “We’ll see.”
Klassen said Hughes has been a great teacher.
“She’s always calm and ready to compete,” she said. “It will be strange not to have her around.”