For Clara Hughes, the London Olympics present a remarkably comfortable environment

Andrew Bucholtz

If the environment surrounding a Games can be unnerving for first-time Olympians (an important part of this year's Canadian team), it follows that it's at least somewhat more familiar and comfortable for those who have competed at previous Olympics. One of the most experienced members of that crowd is Clara Hughes, the 39-year-old cyclist and speed skater who's the only person to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. Although she hasn't competed in cycling since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Hughes is an Olympic veteran from 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2010, so the environment's hardly new to her. Yet, as she told Bruce Arthur of The National Post, the London experience in particular feels even more comfortable than usual, partly because of how she doesn't stand out:

"My father's from England, my ancestors are here," Hughes said Wednesday, four days before she cycles at her first Summer Olympics since 2000, racing in the women's road race and time trial. "I feel at home being really pasty and pale, and red hair — I feel very ordinary, and I kind of like it here."

Fitting into a crowd isn't easy for Hughes, who's notable on a wide variety of fronts. Beyond being an elite competitor in two sports, successfully returning to top-level cycling after a decade away and qualifying for her sixth Olympics, she carried the flag for Canada at the opening ceremonies in Vancouver and has made huge charitable contributions to organizations such as Right to Play and Take a Hike. She's been an important spokesperson for Bell's Let's Talk initiative to remove the stigma of mental illness, and has candidly opened up about her own struggles with depression. She's also discussed her teenage rebellion, which involved skipping school and getting caught up in alcohol and drugs. Hughes' remarkable backstory, amazing athletic accomplishments and impressive off-the-track efforts have made it so that she's one of the biggest Canadian stars at these games.

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What's perhaps more even remarkable is that Hughes appears truly ready to move on after the Games, though. Having a sports career come to an end isn't an easy thing for any athlete to accept, and it's hit many of Canada's best hard even after they've won gold medals. You'd think it would be even tougher for Hughes, who's been competing at the Olympic level for over 15 years now; it must be difficult to just set that much of your life aside and find something new. As she told Arthur, she sees the looming end of her sports career as an exciting new opportunity, though.

"I know that you just know [when it's over], because I knew when I skated across the line in Vancouver after my 5,000 metres that I would never race again. I knew it in my heart, and I knew it inside of me, and I think it'll be the same on the bike at the Olympics. There really are so many things that I have the opportunity to do that have deep meaning in my life, that I've put on hold to continue to be an athlete. There's no sacrifice involved, there's no compromise really involved, because I'm doing what I love.

"But there are definitely other things. This isn't something I have to do; this is something that I have the gift of doing."

Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. After all, Hughes has continually proven comfortable with things that would intimidate many, from succeeding at her first Olympics to competing at an elite level in two sports to serving as a TV commentator, taking prominent stands for good causes, candidly talking about her own background and struggles and discussing touchy subjects, such as issues facing Canada's First Nations communities. She's comfortable in London, and she's comfortable heading into the end of her sports career. While chaos reigns around her, Hughes is the captain of her soul, and that could set her up for a farewell to be remembered.

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