Olympian bikes to shine light on mental illness

One of Canada's most decorated Olympians, Clara Hughes is cycling coast to coast and talking about mental illness.

Former Olympian Clara Hughes stopped in Hope during her cross-Canada bicycle trek.

Barry Stewart,

Black Press

Cycling and speed skating changed the life-path of Clara Hughes, a six-time Olympic medalist and the only athlete ever to win multiple medals at both the summer and winter Olympic games. Now, as she transitions into retirement from competitive sport, Hughes is using her celebrity to shine the light on a topic that has put a dent in her life: mental illness.

Hughes, her husband Peter Guzman and friend Ina Teutenberg cycled from Vancouver to Hope on Monday, as part of ‘Clara’s Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk’ — a 12,000 kilometre, 110-day ride around Canada, to talk about mental health issues and help put an end to the stigma, or shame, that people attach to mental health.

Hughes spoke to over 100 people at Hope secondary school Monday night, then came back to talk to the students Tuesday morning.

The ride has 18 support staff and one of them, Derek Forgie, had recently joined the crew to help emcee Hughes’ speaking engagements. Hope was his first event and he warmed up the crowd with a lively repartee on mental health issues.

Quoting statistical references, he said, “The people who are struggling with mental health have a harder time dealing with the stigma, than the actual illness itself.”

And later: “Here’s the best part, perhaps this is the most promising part of stigma… we made it up! It’s fake! It’s a thing that through miseducation or misunderstanding or ignorance… is just there.

“So, if we collectively decide that’s it’s over: guess what, Hope? It’s over! It’s done — and that’s what tonight is all about.”

When Hughes arrived on the stage, she exuded an easy confidence — and her trademark smile — as she talked about her life as a troubled teen in Winnipeg. She was into drugs, alcohol, smoking and skipping a lot of school… — then she happened to see TV coverage of Canadian Olympic speed skater Gaétan Boucher’s last skate and she was inspired to take up the sport.

“I knew in my heart of hearts that I was going to be a speed skater and I was going to skate for Canada,” said Hughes.

Her first attempts at her new sport — in hockey skates — didn’t go well… but they left Hughes with a lesson on how to treat others.

“I went to my first practice with my ringette helmet and nobody laughed at me. And I tried and I got left behind because I didn’t have those 17-inch blades — but the key was: nobody laughed at me. Nobody ridiculed me. Nobody made fun of me because I wasn’t like everybody else.”

While she carried on with speed skating and eventually won four Olympic medals (one of them gold) in that sport, it was road cycling that brought Hughes her first medals, at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

From that high, she soon swung into a deep low.

“All of a sudden, I was giving people hope — but I felt so hopeless inside. And within two months, those medals and that ultimate ‘thing’ that I wanted… that I thought was going to make me complete… cracked me wide open and left me in a state of depression that lasted two years.

“For two years, I refused help. I quit my sport because I felt it was sport that did it to me,” said Hughes. “All I was doing was eating, sleeping, crying.

“The only thing that brought me back was finally realizing that showing my weakness was actually a part of being strong. Showing my weakness was actually allowing people to come in and help me.”

Speaking about mental health access to care and resources, Hughes said, “It’s pretty mind-blowing, in a small community, what you guys have. I can say that you guys have a lot that big cities don’t have — and it’s very, very impressive.”

The Hope Mental Health Centre is located in the former nurses’ quarters, just north of the emergency ward of Fraser Canyon Hospital.

Outpatients are seen at the centre withmonthly group meetings for patients and their friends and families. To contact the centre, call 604-860-7733.

Back to the tour: with their gear being carried in support vehicles, the trio was able to maintain a 25 km/h pace on Monday, said Guzman. Tuesday’s Coquihalla stretch on the way to Merritt wouldn’t see the same tempo, surely.

“We average 150 kilometres a day, six days a week,” he added.

The ride began in Toronto March 14 and concludes in Ottawa on Canada Day.

Now that they’ve covered the north country, Guzman hoped the worst weather was behind them.

“Surprisingly, it’s been a full-on winter ride until we arrived in Victoria and were wearing T-shirts and shorts,” he said.

“The riding part has actually been the easiest,” said Hughes. “It’s the amount of events… 168 events in 67 days so far.

July 2 will be a great day of rest.”

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