After she was named the flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, and faced an intense media scrum, Canadian cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes was stressed. Then she opened her email, and found an invitation to a “brushing-off” ceremony. While other Olympic competitors went deep into their own sport bubbles, Clara travelled to a Squamish First Nations reserve and took in a ceremony of chanting, candles and more. An elder said to all present, “I cannot heal you of your pain. Only you can heal yourself with your open heart and open mind.”
Openness is the watchword of Clara Hughes’s autobiography Open Heart, Open Mind. Known for Olympic success and an inspiring spirit of sportsmanship and joy in pursuing excellence, Hughes’s life had many darker times, which she shares without varnish in this book. Born to an angry alcoholic father who moved out when she was nine, Clara quickly became rebellious along with her older sister – stealing at eight, smoking at eleven, partying hard and cutting school beginning at thirteen. She relates this story with an adult’s understanding of the dynamics of a dysfunctional family and the illusions she had projected onto both her parents.
Clara’s life changed when she was sixteen and she watched Gaetan Boucher speed skating in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Awed by the effortless performance and his obvious love for what he was doing, Clara immediately felt a strong sense of “I am going to do that!” She joined a speed skating club and spent two years channeling her anger, frustration and loneliness into her sport. She cut down on smoking and drinking, came back to school and turned Fs into As.
But when her speed skating coach left town, she found herself unsure where to turn next. That’s where cycling came in. A tough and charismatic coach invited her to a training camp. Under his training, which she now understands was abusive, she pushed herself harder than ever before, excelling and yet suffering. She developed an eating disorder and depression. Even as she won her first two Olympic medals, a pair of cycling bronzes in Atlanta, a radiant red-headed smile masked a continuing depression, disordered eating and lack of self-worth. She lapsed back into smoking, drinking and drug use. It was meeting her now husband, Peter Guzman, with his grounded, loving and positive energy, that helped her realize she needed to cut ties with this coach and move on to much healthier coaching relationships.
After the Sydney 2000 Olympics, where her experiences were marred by mechanical issues and by the tragedy of learning a beloved teammate had died in a crash in Boston, Clara decided to return to speed skating. In the following years, she continued to excel in both her chosen sports, even as she continued to struggle with addiction. She got sober for Torino, but her breathtaking victory in the 5000m event there masked an athlete who had been severely ill with pneumonia, out of shape as a result, and demoralized by a lack of team spirit. Her performance was quite literally transcendent – she went beyond all of these concerns and beyond the agony in her own muscles to skate for pure joy. With a fierce commitment to raise funds for the charity Right to Play, she found within herself a performance that physiologically should not have been possible.
After her final Olympic performance, on the bike in London in 2012, she realized for the first time that no sporting performance would change the pain she had been carrying all of these years. She started to seek out the help she needed to heal.
Clara’s fierce passion, competitive spirit, and love for children and nature shines through this book. She pulls no punches about how dark her road got at times, or about how even now she still has hard times with self-image and an explosive temper. Readers will find there is much more to Clara Hughes than the champion and the flag-bearer, and gain understanding and respect for how hard she has worked and how far she has come.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. She is the editor for Parvati’s new book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie”, which has sold out out its first two printing runs.