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Gold Standard: In Conversation with Clara Hughes

Olympian Clara Hughes talks about overcoming challenges, telling the truth and confronting the stigma of mental illness.

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Olympian and activist Clara HughesPhoto: Colin Way

Clara Hughes: Making Mental Health Matter

“Used to skate in circles and ride a bike pretty fast, now do all things slow.” That’s how Olympian Clara Hughes describes herself these days—at least that’s what she says in her Twitter bio. It’s an apt but incomplete description of a woman who makes every decision with enviable deliberation.

Since 1996, when she earned two bronze medals on her bike in the Atlanta Olympics, Canadians have cheered Hughes’s athletic skill. She’s brought home six Olympic medals in both cycling and speed skating, making her the only person ever to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games. But she’s all too aware that life’s a marathon, not a sprint. Since stepping off the podium for good in 2012, she has approached the next phase of her life with a determination to give back to the community and an unwavering commitment to honesty. She’s shared her ongoing struggle with depression; she’s talked openly about her difficult childhood, her own poor choices and the impact of a father who was verbally abusive and who struggled with alcoholism.

We make heroes of our athletes, casting them as role models whether or not they prove themselves worthy of admiration outside of their sport. Few have risen to this challenge quite like Hughes. And it’s perhaps this strength of character that has earned her the trust of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

Reader’s Digest: How does it feel to be one of the most trusted people in Canada?

Clara Hughes: It makes me kind of nervous! I try to just be myself. That’s what I consider a trustworthy person, someone who is themself—their whole being—in every circumstance.

Few would have pegged you as a Most Trusted candidate in your youth: you stole candy, forged notes, bought cigarettes as a minor. Is trust something you’ve had to work at over time?

Definitely. I’m pretty open about the stupid things I did as a young person. A lot of that comes out of having a dysfunctional family, internalizing guilt because of the breakup of that unit and expressing it in really delinquent ways.

What changed?

In 1988 I saw [Olympic speed skater] Gaétan Boucher race on TV. It was such a powerful, freeing act of giving oneself to something. I’d never seen somebody care so much. That’s where my path as an athlete began. I was 16, and I was lucky that I fell into the hands of fantastic coaches who taught me that I had to trust myself—to understand and know which of my limits could be pushed and which limits needed to be respected.

We trust people who tell the truth, even when it’s hard, and you’ve been courageous on that front. After having been lauded for your fortitude, how did it feel when you started to speak publicly about things, like depression, that some might view as weakness?

I spent so many years just showing strength and joy. After two decades of that, I realized you’re only half human if that’s all you show. Having the opportunity to fully express myself was one of the most liberating—and terrifying and embarrassing—experiences, and I don’t regret it. I’ve been sharing my inner struggles for seven years, and I’ve connected with hundreds of thousands of people, and that makes any naysayer or trash talker seem so small.

It can take Olympic-level strength to cope with mental illness, but it’s not always seen that way. Do you think there’s progress being made on the stigma?

I do. People’s attitudes are changing, particularly those of young Canadians. I see a future when people look back on when there was a stigma—when no one would talk openly about mental illness—as an archaic, ridiculous time.

There can be an upside to struggling with something like depression when you’re getting support: it can force you to understand your mind and confront your demons. Have you found that?

Yes. That’s part of what’s allowed me to trust myself. But my experience with mental health has been pretty easy compared to what most people encounter. I had access to support as an athlete; I can afford a psychologist.

You’re saying that because accessing support, like psychotherapy, can be prohibitively expensive?

That’s what I struggle with the most. Talking is good, sharing is great and listening is even better, but there needs to be action [on access to support], and it needs to come from government. It’s moving so slowly that lives are lost. I know some of those lives. They’re in my heart, and they compel me to try to push for change. We’re better than this reality. We’re a country that prides itself on universal access to health care, but we focus on the physical, except in the most extreme cases. It’s the equivalent of a person with cancer being told, Wait until you’re at stage four and absolutely desperate, then we’ll get you on the waiting list.

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Clara Hughes speaking about mental health in Kingston, Ont.Photo: Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Over the past few years, you’ve committed to revealing even the hardest truths. In your 2015 memoir, Open Heart, Open Mind, you admitted that early in your cycling career you tested positive for ephedrine, a stimulant found in cough and cold medicine. You weren’t obligated to disclose that information, so why share it?

I had to. You can’t just choose this truth and not that one.

You can—people do it all the time!

I felt I had no choice. If I was going to tell my story, it was an opportunity to liberate myself from something that had happened in my life that I still don’t understand.

This was in 1994, but at the time, you were advised not to say anything, and the incident was kept quiet.

I could have made it easier on myself by saying I took cough medicine, but I [hadn’t taken any]. And I can’t make up a mistruth to try to explain the situation away. So I just put it out there, and I thought, If this ruins me, there’s nothing I can do.

You also write a pretty personal journal on your website. Why?

It’s just a way of talking about how weird and wild life is, how I’m human and flawed, how I struggle and how sometimes I’m stoked about ridiculous things.

You recently posted a photo of yourself looking very serious and sad. Are you actively trying to show a counter-point to the happier image of you that’s out there?

Oh, yeah. I was bawling my eyes out and couldn’t stop. I’d been crying for days, weeks, months. My knee was injured. I was sitting in my office and I thought, How many times do you post nice pictures? Like, “Look at my hair today!” or “I’m so happy, I’m out running!” And I just thought, I want to share the here and the now, and if anybody else out there is feeling this way, I just want to let them know they’re not alone. Over 1,000 people wrote comments on Facebook and Instagram, and I read every one. It helped me through that tough time. Sometimes being real with others also helps you be more real with yourself.

This was while you were waiting for knee surgery after an injury. How did you hurt yourself?

I was hiking on Haida Gwaii, on the West Coast, and wiped out on a very simple trail. My foot got jammed between a log and a rock, I fell with all my weight and I heard two huge pops. I thought I’d completely severed my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], but the doctor told me it was just sprained, so for five months I pretended my knee was okay. When I finally got an MRI, there were only, like, two threads of it left. It was my first surgery, my first IV. My first painkillers!

What’s the recovery been like? That’s got to be a psychological challenge as well as a physical one.

I’m not used to things not working. As an athlete, you learn to love pain and metabolize it as energy. But when that sensation comes through injury and is chronic … there’s no comparison. It’s sensitized me to the struggle that so many people live with. I’ve had to learn to be patient. And I’m very grateful because I’ll recover fully.

In this time of fake news and alternative facts, trust seems to be harder and harder to come by. Where do you put your trust these days?

I try to think critically, and I look to people whose opinions and morals I value. I try to avoid ingesting the toxins of so much social media, those mistruths that are perpetuated by the real fake news and alternative facts.

Many people are feeling demoralized about the state of the world right now. Are you able to maintain your optimism?

I have to be grounded and calm to find any goodness. More than optimism, I think it’s, Can you keep your humanity during this time of uncertainty and unrest?

I did read that you communed with a chipmunk on the Appalachian Trail. That seems hopeful, if a bit unusual.

When I walked the trail in 2016, I lived outdoors. I’d touch a tree and feel its strength, and I’d say, “Hey, you’re looking good, old guy!” Or I’d see a chipmunk and be like, “Hey, little brother!” Those experiences, with the self, with nature, with others—that’s where meaning comes from. That’s what I seek out.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada