Speedskater Clara Hughes has advice for athletes making their Olympic debut at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver — don’t listen to advice.
“Don’t let anybody tell you what it’s going to be and how you should be,” says the four-time Olympian and multi-medallist.
Told by pundits prior to the road race at the 1996 Olympics that she was just there to gain experience for future Olympics, Hughes won the first of her two bronze medals in cycling in Atlanta.
Few athletes win Olympic medals in different sports, but shortly after switching to long-track speedskating, the Winnipeg native earned bronze in 2002. Hughes didn’t see that as a relative newcomer to the sport, she should be kept off the podium.
“Don’t let anyone else set your limits because the magic of the Olympics is it can rise you above anything you ever imagined possible,” Hughes says. “You could get the wings that the Olympics can give you on the day that it really matters.
“You might not get them back again in your life, but you know what? It could happen to you.”
The majority of the approximately 220 athletes on Canada’s Olympic team in 2010 will have competed in a previous Games. They’ll draw on that experience to navigate the pitfalls of the mammoth event.
But dozens will make their debut when the Games open Feb. 12. The entire ski cross team will be Olympic newbies because ski cross is new too.
The rookies will discover transportation, training and eating meals is more complicated and takes more time than at other international events.
The handful of media they see at World Cups will swell to the thousands in Vancouver and Whistler. Many will be on national television for the first time in their lives.
Hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser will participate in her fifth Games in Vancouver and says it’s easy in your first one to think you must do something extraordinary.
“A lot of athletes go to the Games and think they have to raise the bar,” she explains. “If you’re prepared and done all you can do, when you go to the Games, just relax and perform the way you always have.
“That’s a really hard thing to do, but I think over the different Olympic Games, I have learned that.”
Experience in previous Games gives an athlete confidence. But every Canadian will be a novice at competing at an Olympic Games in their home country.
For that reason, biathlete Megan Imrie of Falcon Lake, Man., doesn’t feel she’s disadvantaged compared to teammates with more Olympic seasoning.
“Since this is in our backyard, I have a feeling there are going to be a few twists that not even the veterans will know about this time,” she says.
Using cross-country skier Chandra Crawford as an example, Imrie points out that lack of experience didn’t detract from her result. Crawford raced under the radar to gold in her first Olympics in 2006.
“As a rookie going into it, I’m not going to have pressure to perform to a podium level,” Imrie says.
“There’s always that chance that I could always have a fantastic day, but it’s not the same pressure that the veterans will be getting.”
Ottawa speedskater Kristina Groves, a double silver medallist in 2006, agrees experience can take you only so far and an Olympics at home adds another layer of complexity.
“The Games are in Canada and I’m in a position where people expect certain things and that’s a whole new thing that I’ve never lived through before,” Groves says. “The experience is one thing, but I’ve never lived this experience.
“There’s no way you can replicate a home Games experience.”
Some aspects of the Olympics will be the same for every athlete, whether it’s their first or fifth time. The challenge for both is to soak in the unique experience, while performing their best.