Multi-Medalist Mojo

Chilling With Clara Hughes

Chilling With Clara Hughes

Cyclist turned speed skater Clara Hughes is an athlete of awesome distinction. The Winnipegger is the only Canadian to medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. She won a pair of bronze medals in the road races at the 1996 Atlanta Games and another bronze in the 5000-metre speed skating event in Salt Lake City in 2002. At Turin in 2006 she captured the gold in the 5000-metre and a silver for her part in the team pursuit. Always gung ho and itching to get to the starting line, Hughes reflects on the past, steels herself for the struggle ahead, and reveals that training is a royal pain in the glutes.

Whatís your sports philosophy?
Iíve done a lot of reading on martial arts and on Chinese philosophyóSun Tzuís The Art Of War and Lao Tsuís Tao Te Chingóand Iíve connected with these philosophies. Sport is very strategic and ultimately when you are stepping on the line you are out there to fight for your life. You are fighting to the death. Sometimes you are fighting against other competitors, but most of the time you are fighting against yourself and your own limitations. I always look at races as battles. Iím a warrior. I have to go out there and I have to be ready. I have to be aware and I have to be very, very smart and strategic with my moves.

Youíve described training before as ďtorture.Ē Were you just joking?
No I wasnít joking. It is torture. A lot of people just see us at the Olympics and go ďwow you are just really goodĒ but they donít realize how many thousands of hours weíve put ourselves through. Itís really hard. Training is sometimes even harder than racing because you are always pushing yourself beyond what you could do in a race in terms of intensity and distance.

How hardcore is your training?
We skate up to twenty-five kilometres a day. Some of the hardest training we do is in the summer on dry land out under the hot summer sun doing imitations and jumping exercises. A program may last for two-and-a-half hours, and halfway through you can barely stand-up, but somehow you manage to keep pushing yourself through.

Is there any part of your training you enjoy?
I use my bike a lot. I still think itís a really great tool for me and I know how to use it well. My coach also feels that way so I do a lot of cycling. I really enjoy getting out and pushing myself on my bike and riding in beautiful places. It gives me a lot of peace of mind and a lot of pleasure.

Do you think coming from cycling has made you a better speed skater?
Definitely. I think cycling taught me how to suffer. And not only how to suffer for a couple minutes, but how to suffer for hours on end and I think thatís something I bring into skating. Every race that I do is never really that long and as hard as it can get it will be over a lot faster than say a three hour road race in France. Cycling definitely gave me perspective, a great work ethic and also a huge endurance base. I probably have more endurance in my system than any other speed skater.

You keep mentioning pain and suffering. Are these just necessary hurdles you need to clear in order to achieve your end goal?
They are. When people are good at something it is easy to assume it is always fun and it is always easy but most of the time it is just really, really hard and thatís what sport is. Itís pushing your limits and learning to fight through pain so that when you do get to something like the Olympics you are fresh, ready, mentally prepared, and can push that much further.

What was the feeling like when you won the bronze in the 5000 metres in Salt Lake City?
I actually thought I was going to have a heart attack after my raceóI pushed myself so hard. I discovered a new threshold of pain that day and was nauseous for two days after. Itís incredibly satisfying and I love what I do but I also consider being an athlete one of the hardest jobs a person can have cause it hurts.

How do you celebrate once the pain subsides?
It depends where we are in the season. Sometimes the next week you are already going to race in another world cup or world championship. Some athletes are just always focused on the next race. I always allow myself a moment whether itís a minute, a day, or a week just to sit and really appreciate and enjoy the opportunity Iíve had to have an incredible experience. I celebrate the fact that I had the courage to fight and the courage to try, and just feel really good as a human being. Sport is a wonderful thing. I think sometimes athletes get so caught up in whatís next that they forget to celebrate the moment.

Last March you smashed an eleven-year-old record to become the fastest woman to skate 10,000 metres. Why was it so important for you to go after a record in a discipline not contested at the Olympics?

It was important for me to go after that record because the woman that set it, Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, was the greatest female speed skater ever to walk the face of the earth. I just felt that for me as an endurance athlete the 10,000 metres is the ultimate test. I wanted to skate it to see how fast I could do it. I wanted to break Gundaís record but I also wanted to have it in my memory bank so that whenever I skated the 5000 metres I knew what 10000 metres was like.

When you eventually retire from speed skating do you think youíll transition into a third sport, maybe biathlon or golf?
No way. I still have to learn my sport, and it might take me another four years to do that. Iím just enjoying every step of the way right now. I didnít start speed skating to be a Winter and Summer Olympic medalist. That is just something that happened along the way. I absolutely love to skate. I think itís the most beautiful way to move as a human being.

Published in Chill Magazine

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