With the Vancouver Olympics now in the books, Canadian speed skating legend Clara Hughes is officially hanging up the skates – but that hasn’t slowed the six-time Olympic medalist down one bit. The only Canadian to ever medal in both the Summer and Winter Games, Hughes is a national icon and embodiment of the Olympic spirit. We caught up with the speed demon just before she headed to Ottawa to collect the Order of Canada to find out how her love of all things ice and Quebec translates to her NHL team of choice.
You seem like you’re busier than ever right now. Shouldn’t you be migrating south, playing bocce and hitting the links every day now that you’re retired?
Clara Hughes: (laughs) Well I don’t golf, but I do enjoy riding my bike and running so I’ve been finding time every day to get out and do something active. What’s nice more than anything has been being able to travel around Canada and just share the Olympic spirit and just say thank you to all Canadians for the unbelievable support we received.
What is it about Quebec that brought you here from Winnipeg? Be honest: it was the poutine, right?
CH: (laughs) No, no. I trained in Bromont for a summer as a cyclist and really just fell in love with the province. My husband and I felt an instant connection to the rich culture in Quebec. It’s a place we want to call home for a long time.
How’s your French coming along?
CH: Well, when I’m at home I have a lot of neighbors who only speak French so they’ve been my "professeurs", I guess. (laughs) I’ve definitely been working on it and I’ve realized in Quebec the deepest level of respect you can show people is even if you can’t speak French perfectly, at least you try.
|Hughes being serenaded by the Bell Centre faithful after winning bronze in the 5,000 meters at the 2010 Olympics. |
Based on your roots, can we assume you grew up a raving Jets fan?
CH: Oh yeah, I was a big Jets fan as a kid and I still have hope that there’s going to be another hockey team in Winnipeg soon!
So was your next favorite team as a kid the Habs?
CH: I didn’t grow up going to many hockey games but I’ve managed to make it out to a few Canadiens games when I’ve been in town, and it’s just awesome. Montreal really is the center of the hockey universe and I just love being a part of that environment at games.
You were in the house at the Bell Centre in March for the game against the Bruins and were introduced to a huge standing ovation from the crowd. Not a bad way to make an entrance, having 21,273 people chant your name.
CH: It blew me away. I knew it was going to be something special, but when the crowd kept cheering and getting louder it really brought me back to the Olympics and to my race. In the 5,000 meters, it’s such a long race but the crowd just kept getting more intense as it went on, and that’s exactly what it was like being at the Habs game.
Say you and Brian Gionta were out there on the Bell Centre ice. Gio is pretty quick on his feet, but you’re no slouch in the speed department, yourself. Who would win in a lap around the ice?
CH: (laughs) Well, he would take off on me on the start, but if the race was longer than let’s say 30 seconds, I think I could catch him and pass him. I need long distances – and we’d have to be turning left!
You’re an elite athlete in both cycling and speed skating. Can we assume by your career choices that you just can’t get enough of wearing spandex?
CH: (laughs) No, it definitely wasn’t that. In fact, as a kid, I never would’ve even been attracted to either sport but as a teenager I saw the Olympics and was totally inspired by the movement of speed skating and Gaetan Boucher.
After the Torino Olympics, you donated your medal bonus to Right to Play. How important was it to you to get involved in a program like that?
CH: For me it was a huge inspiration as an athlete to keep me connected to what I believe is the true value of sport: motivating young people and giving them something in their lives that’s positive and gives them a sense of self-esteem. I’ve been all over the world with Right to Play and seen the power of sport. In Canada, the power is hockey – it really is something that has the ability to give so much to young people and has the power to change lives.
|Hughes swapped her fullbody speedskating suit for cycling spandex at the 2012 Olympics in London. |
We know they’re like children and you’re not supposed to play favorites, but which of your medals are you most proud of?
CH: It would be my bronze medal from Vancouver. I had a gold medal from four years earlier and a previous medal from cycling, but for me this medal represented the perfect race. It was the best I’ve ever performed mentally and physically as an athlete. To me that medal doesn’t even have a color; its color is excellence.
You’ve been around the Olympic block a few times, but what did doing it on home soil mean to you?
CH: It was the experience of a lifetime. That was a big part of what allowed me to arrive at the starting line the way I was mentally and physically, just feeling like I had wings under my feet. I will never, ever forget those 17 days in my life.
Follow Clara online and help her reach out and support youth athletics across the country on her official Web site, www.clara-hughes.com.
This article, written by Shauna Denis, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 24 No. 5.