Six-time Olympian Clara Hughes accepts Red Deer 'antlers' after arriving in the city as part of her cross-country ride to raise awareness and get people talking about mental illness. Hughes

Clara’s journey

It takes more than a few Prairie storms to stop Clara Hughes when she’s on a mission.

It takes more than a few Prairie storms to stop Clara Hughes when she’s on a mission.

The inspirational six-time Olympic medallist dodged storm cells all the way from Airdrie to Red Deer as she ticked off another 124 kilometres of Clara’s Big Ride, her two-wheeled campaign to remove the stigma of mental illness.

Looking every bit the Olympian still, Hughes actually pulled in to the Parkland Mall parking lot to wild cheers from about 150 supporters nearly 20 minutes ahead of schedule on Day 79 of her 110-day marathon.

Hughes told the crowd she was overwhelmed by the support shown by honking, waving, cheering motorists as she made her way to Red Deer.

“It was out of this world.”

The smiling speedskater and cyclist is the only person to have multiple medals in both summer and winter Olympics.

Remarkably, she managed to pull off Olympic medal performances while often battling depression.

Her own reluctance to get help for years has now motivated her to ensure that depression is brought into the light and those suffering mental illness are not afraid to talk about it.

One in five Albertans will experience mental health issues at some time in their lives.

Almost all of us will know someone who has struggled.

“This ride is all about mental health awareness. It’s about breaking down the stigma attached to mental illness. It’s about bringing communities together for this conversation,” said Hughes.

“It’s not about sport. It’s not about distance or speed. It’s all about the mental health conversation.”

Her sister has struggled with bipolar disorder and her father has also struggled his whole life.

“Sometimes, you can actually save a life by just asking someone how they’re doing. And if you know how that person can get help you can really make a difference for them.

“People did that for me when I went through depression.”

Hughes also shared some memories of speedskating at Red Deer’s oval and gave a shout out to local speedskating Olympians Jeremy Wotherspoon and sister Danielle.

She recalled how speedskating coaches tired of moaning about ice conditions in the indoor oval in Calgary decided to bring the Olympic team up to Red Deer to train old school, outside.

When they arrived in a snowstorm speedskaters had to hit the shovels until a tractor finally showed up.

“We had so much fun and I swear that’s what taught me how to work on the ice that led me to my first bronze medal for Canada.”

Kevin Breel, spokesman for the Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign, which sponsors the ride, said the awareness effort has started the conversation about mental illness in a way that hasn’t been done before.

“More than anything we’re knocking down this sort of social sense of shame, or secrecy, or silence around these issues. That’s really what Bell Let’s Talk is all about and so is Clara’s Big Ride.”

Walter Lidster, executive director of Family Services of Central Alberta, said the Big Ride will make a difference.

“I’m an ex-mental health therapist myself, and one of the issues that I really struggled with was to help my clients deal with the shame associated with anything to do with mental health.”

Lidster said Hughes is a hero to many and “to have somebody like her say, ‘Look I’ve experienced this. I’m continuing to live with it, and I’m going to use my experience to help others’ is pretty motivating.

“I’m hoping what it does is give people of all ages in Red Deer and Central Alberta (the confidence) to reach out and ask for help if they need it.”

Hughes was to give a youth-geared breakfast speech at the mall before mounting up and cycling to Edmonton.

As of Saturday, she had covered 7,381 kilometres of a 12,000-kilometre trek through 95 Canadian communities coast to coast.

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