The challenge

Olympian CLARA HUGHES* – the satisfaction you feel about an athletic performance has more to do with the challenges you face and your personal performance than whether you win or lose.

I GET ASKED about winning often. As an Olympic athlete, I learned early in my sporting life that this is what most people are interested in. After four Olympic Games, two summer and two winter in cycling and speed skating, respectively, I’ve witnessed countless performances that I consider amazing. You know what? Most of these ‘amazing’ races do not involve winning medals.

I remember being in Atlanta in my first Olympics. I was at the CBC studio in the International Broadcast Center, waiting to do some interviews after having won my second medal of the Games. As I waited in the make-up room, I watched on a tiny television live feed from track and field. I saw Leah Pells, Canada’s top middle distance runner, come forth in the 1500m. The finish was incredible and the result phenomenal. In a sport dominated by African countries, Leah had done the unthinkable and broken through. I remember thinking ‘if only that was a medal, what a story she would have to tell’. I felt much the same, having had success in the European dominated sport of cycling. Because I made it onto the podium, the media would allow me to tell the story of how I got there.

That’s how it goes in the world of sport. Unless an athlete has what is considered good looks, without success there is no platform to tell the story.

After four Olympic Games, two summer and two winter in cycling and speed skating, respectively, I’ve witnessed countless performances that I consider amazing. You know what? Most of these ‘amazing’ races do not involve winning medals.

In my second Olympics, still as a cyclist, I arrived in Australia sick with an awful case of the whooping cough. I had been ill for seven weeks and wondered what I was doing there. I was underprepared and felt simply out of shape. I wanted to hide and not have to face the races that lay ahead. In cycling, there is no hiding behind technique or judging. It’s simply who is strong enough, fast enough and tough enough to prevail. And sometimes, smart enough, too.

I began to feel sorry for myself and just wanted the Olympics to end so that I could go home. It’s embarrassing to think of the bad attitude I had at the time.

After yet another aborted training mission, I sulked home to our out-of-village training base a couple of hours from Sydney. I remember spending the day watching all the pre-Olympic hype and trying to recall feelings of being fit and strong. I did not even feel like an athlete.

Nicole Reinhart

The next morning, I woke up excited to check the internet to see how my other teammates had fared in a race back in the USA. I was a professional cyclist on an international team run out of the States. One of my younger teammates, Nicole Reinhart, was in the running to win a quarter of a million dollars if she came out on top of the last race in a five-race series. All year, the rest of us had set her up to win this series. Nicole did not make the American Olympic Team that year, but I knew her dream was as big as mine to represent her country one day at the Games.

I will never forget the moment I opened up the Canadian Cyclist website to the subject ‘tragedy in Boston’. The race I refer to was in Boston, and because I was a bike racer, immediately I thought flat tire, crash or something of that nature. Never could I imagine what I was about to read.

I sat in shock as I read that Nicole had indeed crashed in the race. She had also died. It was a freak accident, in which she hit a bump in the road that was not that big, and was sent flying into a tree on the side of the road. Nicole was only about 3kms from the finish line of a race she was going to win. She had just turned twenty four years old.

I was numb. I started thinking about the time earlier that year when Nicole and I spent two weeks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We shared a hotel room and were competing in a series of races in the area. Nicole shared with me her disappointment in not making the team that year. She had an intense hunger to one day live the ultimate dream as an athlete: to be an Olympian. I thought about how negative I was, and how ridiculously narrow my vision had turned because I was sick. I felt ashamed that I had literally given up before the race had even begun.

I vowed to myself sometime that morning that I would fight. I made the commitment to excellence and to having the best races I could, no matter how I felt, how hard it was, or how far behind I might be.

I vowed to myself sometime that morning that I would fight. I made the commitment to excellence and to having the best races I could, no matter how I felt, how hard it was, or how far behind I might be.

I began to see commercials on the TV about the Olympic Truce and the meaning of sportsmanship, respect for competitors and self, and ultimately what it means to be an Olympian. As the Olympics unfolded, I saw athletes quit their races, some as short as 100m, because they were not winning. I vowed to finish whatever I started, no matter what.

My first race, the road race, was 120kms long. About halfway through, I was dropped from the main peleton. I rode around the racing curcuit in the cold and rain. Lap after lap the racers I was with would quit. Each time we passed through the feed zone, where support staff waited with bottles of fluid under the protection of the cabanas which were set up, another would step off of her bike. Soon, I was alone.

Alone, and twenty minutes behind the main pack who would fight it out for the coveted gold, silver and bronze that might make their countries proud. I will never forget riding through Centennial Park in Sydney, long after someone had won that race, through the misty green surroundings. Volunteers were already picking up fencing and cleaning up. As I rode along, a volunteer stopped what he was doing, looked over at me and yelled “Finish with your head held high, Canada!”

I looked back at him, and smiled, saying “yes, I will!” And along I went. I finished that race about twenty five minutes behind the winner, in second to last place, on a day when I should have been in a hospital bed because I was so very ill. I crossed the line, weaving around the crowd of photographers gathered to get shots of the glorious winners. I smiled as much as I had four years earlier, when I won my first Olympic medal in Atlanta.

I felt on that day I lived up to the ideals of being an Olympian. I also learned the true meaning of excellence: to be the best you possibly can and never, ever give up. Reporters after the race seemed sheepish in their queries, wondering what could have gone wrong. Instead of making any excuses with illness, I stated “that was perhaps the best race of my life. I did that for Nicole.”

Four days later, I finished sixth in the time trial. Thirteen seconds out of a bronze medal position. That still is the best race of my life.

This whole experience has made me who I am today. Would I have followed my heart and returned to speed skating right after these Olympics had this tragedy not shown me clearly how short life can be? Possibly not. Would I have gone on to win a bronze medal in the Winter Olympics in speed skating, only sixteen months after those Summer Olympics? Definitely not. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the greatest success I have achieved if you want to gauge success by medals, when I won the 5000m speed skating event in 2006 at the Torino Olympics, would absolutely not have happened if I had not learned the true meaning of excellence back in 2000. These lessons were learned not by winning, but by taking part, and being the best I could possibly be on the day.

Four days later, I finished sixth in the time trial. Thirteen seconds out of a bronze medal position. That still is the best race of my life.

I consider the Sydney Olympics, the only Games of the four I’ve competed in that I did not ‘succeed’ in winning a medal, the most valuable. I only wish this lesson did not have to come with such a great loss.

Thank you, Nicole. You will forever be a part of everything I do in sport, and in life.

*Clara Hughes is a Canadian cyclist and speed skater, and has won multiple Olympic medals in both sports. Her website is http://www.clara-hughes.com

I found her article on Duff Gibson’s website – sportatitsbest.com

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