TORONTO – Clara Hughes was standing on the podium like she’s done so many times before, smiling and draped in a red and white Team Canada sweatshirt. This time though there was no medal around her neck, no bouquet of flowers, no cheering fans.
Standing in front of a group of media, business executives and both former and current Olympic athletes in a downtown Toronto hotel, it seemed more like a passing of the torch. After more than 15 years and six Olympic medals as the only athlete in the world to ever win multiple medals at both the Summer and Winter Games, it’s now somebody else’s turn to lead.
While Hughes didn’t point to one athlete who she feels might be able to lead the next generation of Canadian Olympians both on and off the playing field, she did mention Rosie MacLennan as a young Olympian who understands that she can use her Olympic success as a way to give back.
And for Hughes that type of giving attitude is what inspired her over the course of her career as an Olympian.
“Athletes like Johan Olav Koss who is the founder of Right to Play and so many [other] athletes who give back in the human sense,” Hughes said after a press conference Wednesday where Canadian Tire announced a new eight-year partnership with the Canadian Olympic team. “I always tried to go about sport that way.”
And she has. Most notably in 2010 Hughes became one of the faces of the Bell ‘Let’s Talk’ initiative, a five-year program to help raise awareness and help support those suffering from mental illness as Hughes herself has had to face the darkness of depression.
Since London, she’s been doing quite a bit of traveling. She’s been on various hiking trips with her husband through France and California, she went on Right To Play tours in Africa and Uganda – she’s on the international board of directors with the organization now – and she just returned from a two-week bike tour in Mexico.
“I’m kind of all over the place, doing the things that mean a lot to me like distance travel, hiking and bike touring but also traveling around the world for Right To Play, traveling around Canada and sharing my passion for the Olympics,” she said. It’s been a very interesting time.”
The next few years of Hughes’ life will be heavily focused on ‘Lets Talk’. The third and fourth years of the campaign is massive, she says, and she’s also going to be spending quite a bit of time doing some advocacy work in the Northwest Territories. She will also be working alongside retired NHLer Joe Juneau in Nuavik, Que., where she’s going to mentor two Inuit youth girls to do a 1,000 kilometre bike relay across La Belle Province in June.
So while she’s no longer going to compete as an Olympian, Hughes knows that her life will always be intertwined with sport in one way or another and as she’s done throughout her sporting career she will continue to give back.
“[Giving back] is everything to me. I don’t necessarily like talking about myself . . . it’s more I like sharing how I was inspired. ‘This is what you can do when you’re inspired’ and that’s the message I like to give. If I have the chance, I like to give that message because I want people to realize when you’re inspired, when you see the possibilities, you realize there are no limitations.”