An inspired choice for flag-bearer after being able to transform her life with help of sports
Clara Hughes was in charge of buying the beer.
Just 13, she was the ringleader of a group of hardscrabble kids who partied in the stairwells of parking garages in the dead of Winnipeg winter. Already 5-foot-9, she wore a lot of makeup and didn't even have to use fake ID to purchase a couple of two-fours from a local beer vendor.
Extra Old Stock. It was their beer of choice because of the higher alcohol content, certainly not for the taste. But it didn't stop there. Hughes also experimented with drugs, regularly skipped school and ran away from home several times. The downward spiral began after her parents split when she was 9.
The woman who will be unveiled Friday as the flag-bearer to lead the Canadian team into B.C. Place Stadium for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics on Feb. 12 didn't get there via the yellow brick road. She has forged gold out of sheer guts, willpower and with some timely guidance along the way.
Her early days certainly didn't foreshadow a speed skater who would donate $10,000 out of her own bank account to the humanitarian group Right To Play after winning gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
"I look at that period of my life, I have friends from that time who are severe alcoholics and have major social problems and life problems," said Hughes. "I know a girl whose boyfriend killed her and then killed himself.
"When I see kids that are like that now, I think, `You don't know where this can lead you. You're just wasting your life.' I was wasting my life. I'm not proud of who I was. But at the time, I didn't care about anything. I think I didn't have a value system because I came from a dysfunctional family. My mom did the best she could with my sister and I, but we basically went wild after my parents separated.
"Sport is definitely something that provided a value system for me, also just a moral base that I didn't have. I didn't have a strong sense of right and wrong. I just had a very strong sense of whatever I wanted to do at the time. I didn't have respect for anyone or myself."
There would be an intervention, albeit not of the typical variety.
As a 16-year-old, Hughes was sitting in her mother's living room doing some channel surfing and came across the broadcast of the 1988 Calgary Olympics. There was a feature on legendary speed skater Gaetan Boucher, winner of two gold and a bronze at the '84 Sarajevo Games, who was about to take his last shot at the podium in the men's 1,500 metres.
Hughes was mesmerized. To her, it looked like Boucher was floating on the ice.
"I was just, `Omigod, I want to do that. That's what I'm going to do. That's what I'm going to be. I'm going to be that one day,'" recalled Hughes.
"At the time, I smoked a pack a day. I wasn't into really hard drugs, but I was doing a fair amount of soft drugs and just partying a lot. I would run away from home for the weekend. I just wouldn't come home. My mom would be so worried about me. And I just didn't care. Then I'd show up when I wanted to show up.
"And so there I was, this undisciplined, pseudo-amoral girl, young adolescent, and this thing happened inside of me. I was like `I'm going to do that.' I just knew. I KNEW."
The next day her mom was driving her to a friend's house and Hughes blurted out that she wanted to go to the Olympics and be a speed skater. Her mother called the Winnipeg Speed Skating Club and found out there was a spring training camp.
Hughes was inspired, but initially still regressed into her old bad habits. Eventually, the desire to be a great speed skater outstripped anything else. She went from failing school to becoming a straight-A student.
Hughes would also have the good fortune of encountering coaches who would become her guides on an incredible journey that has seen her become the first Canadian to win medals at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
"I've been really lucky to fall in the hands of these incredible teachers pretty much exactly at the time I needed their personality and what they had to offer in my life," she said.
Her speed skating dream took a detour when she was recruited by Mirek Mazur, a cycling coach in Hamilton known for his uncompromising approach. His no-nonsense methods, which included Hughes logging 23,000 kilometres per year, would give her discipline and a conditioning base that pays dividends to this day. She also won two bronze medals in cycling at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
"I was so lucky that tough bastard came into my life when he did because he challenged me," said Hughes. "He changed my life. He really did.
"He was just a drill sergeant and he was just, `Do it. Don't ask questions. Don't think too much.' I went through a pretty long phase of that unconscious competence with him where I didn't really think that much about what I was doing, I was just a machine and I performed."
But she would eventually burn out and after a series of injuries quit cycling briefly, only to revive her career under coach Eric Van Den Eynde in Quebec, where she would settle in the Eastern Townships.
Van Den Eynde would help her develop a competitor's head and soul. He taught her how to train herself, giving her the tools to understand how much she needed to push herself and when it was enough.
"Eric makes you believe," said Hughes. "He lets you believe in the possibilities and never limit yourself to one way. Eric really kind of let me grow up and that was so crucial for me after having been told what to do for so long."
But the lure of speed skating always remained for Hughes and she decided to return to her first love after the Sydney Olympics. It was then she found her next teacher, Xiuli Wang, a former Chinese speed skater who guides her to this day.
"She's like this old soul," said Hughes. "She has so much wisdom to pass on and she just passes it on in such a subtle way and that's what makes it so beautiful. Sometimes she drives me crazy because she demands so much and sometimes I can't handle that. And so we're human and we butt heads, but that's just part of the whole process of appreciating her and learning from her."
But her greatest teacher, Hughes says, is her husband Peter Guzman. They met through a mutual friend in 1996. The American-born Guzman, who became a Canadian citizen last year, is a gentle soul, an adventurer who goes on epic journeys on his bike, in a kayak and on foot. He's the kind of guy who will spend a whole conversation asking you questions about yourself, never talking about himself unless asked.
"Peter has introduced me to so many things," she said. "He's helped me develop and grow as a human being and just been there as my support and the love of my life and just my best friend. The most inspiring person I know is my husband."
Her competitive spirit is hers alone, though, and will be one of the qualities that should serve Canada well in its new flag-bearer. She's tough as nails, has an incredible pain threshold and refuses to accept anything less than the best from herself.
"It's frustrating to never be satisfied ... but it's good fuel for the fire," said Hughes. "It makes me realize I will be competitive until my grave. And I kind of like that. I'm not doing this because, `Well, I'm good enough to go.' It's not good enough to be good enough. It's only good enough to be the best that I can be and better than I ever have been. It's exciting."
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