There’s a story behind Clara Hughes’s smile

27 Jan 2014

MONTREAL — It’s been said that a smile can light up a room. But if it’s Clara Hughes’s smile we’re talking about, well, that could light up a small country.

It’s so hard to believe that behind that smile were, for many years, tears and incredible sadness.

Hughes — the only Canadian Olympic athlete to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Games, for cycling and speedskating — battled depression for years.

And now, since retiring after the London Olympic Games two years ago, she is doing her darnedest to “bust down the walls of stigma around mental health issues.”

The amazingly down-to-earth athlete is very frank about the illness that she, for the most part, battled privately.

“I work with young kids and teens now, because it is that generation that is going to be the change in years to come,” she told me last week while in town as spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk, a campaign for mental health awareness. “One day, down the road, people will not know that there was once a time that there was so much shame around depression and anxiety, and people will know to call and where to go for help, because it will be talked about openly, and it will be available.”

After all, one in four Canadians will be affected by mental illness. And people should not suffer in silence, nor be ashamed of an illness that affects so many.

Hughes believes the area of mental health is very underfunded. “Canada has to do better — it just does, because there are so many hard-working nurses and doctors who want to help, but their hands are tied because there just isn’t enough money.”

Canada, she says, can be a world leader with this issue. “I really believe that.”

For Hughes, it was a meeting with a doctor at the London Games that put her on the path to wellness.

“She’s the one who told me I was depressed, that help was available, that I could start to get better.”

Hughes says no one is immune to depression. “We are all interconnected, we all have our collective struggles, and it’s the collective struggles that balance out the joys and, when combined, make us all human.”

And she says we should never compare struggles or joys. “Our highs and lows are very unique.”

Hughes decided not to take medication. “Everyone is different. We all have to seek professional help to help us find our way. For me, I opted to go the only route I know, and that is in movement.”

She loves to bike, and she does a lot of it. “I am not a robot, or an Olympic machine. I am a recreational athlete now, and I love it,” she laughed. “I feel so alive when I am on a bike.”

As she writes so beautifully in one of the journal entries on her blog ( “Movement is indeed the medicine I need. My daily dose is a run or a walk and it never fails to shift the chemicals that are blocked or flowing out of balance. Makes my spirit come alive and gives me the energy I bring into each encounter the day ahead holds. I move therefore I am. Just as I like it to be.”

She credits a team coach, Eric Van den Eynde, for helping her with a “real life shift.”

“He cared about the person first, and then the athlete. He’s a true humanist.”

Asking for help is the first step for those coping with mental health issues. And it really has to be from a professional, Hughes explains. “Our partners, our friends and family usually will tell us what we want to hear, and that doesn’t always help.

“It really should be someone clinically trained, not someone emotionally connected.”

Recovery is work, and it’s about setting boundaries and listening to our bodies, she says.

“When I was in a dark place, nothing helped. Not even winning 10 medals could ease the unexplainable pain I was feeling inside.”

Until she began working on herself. Stopped pushing herself so hard.

Training for the Olympics got her through some of her darkest days. “I would push myself physically to distract myself from what was really going on inside.” But after London, when she let it all go and began doing the internal work, it was “like stepping into the light.”

She learned to find balance. “Talking about it helps. If we can share the joys, we must also share the lows.” These days, she loves to cook, read and hike, and her goal is to be a “professional volunteer.”

But Hughes says she knows fighting depression is something she will always have to work on. “Dark places are always going to be there, but I recognize the signs, like little drops of rain — I know how to deal with it before I am in a downpour.”

Hughes is very proud of the work she’s doing with Let’s Talk, which has seen Bell commit more than $62 million to mental health initiatives in Canada since it began in 2010. Hughes has been associated with the campaign since the start.

Its nice to see other recognizable faces get on board as well, since there’s usually strength in numbers: journalist Seamus O’Regan, actor/comedian Michel Mpambara, CFL veteran Shea Emry, ex-NHL star Joe Juneau and musicians Stefie Shock, Matthew Good and Robb Nash are also joining the conversation.

After the 2013 edition of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, which garnered $4.8 million, Hughes felt she was just walking away. “The campaign was raising awareness and breaking down the stigma, but I wanted to do more.”

That’s why in March she will begin Clara’s Big Ride, which will take her on a 12,000-kilometre tour across Canada, into every province and territory, ending on Canada Day in Ottawa.

She’s been training for six months with her husband, Peter Guzman, who will do the ride with her. “It’s going to be awesome,” she said.

Hughes knows the impact she’s had by sharing her story. “I remember one email I received after doing the George Stroumboulopoulos show last year before Let’s Talk Day. The woman wrote that she had planned to commit suicide that night, but after watching the show, she realized she wasn’t alone, that help was out there, and she realized she had to go out and find her purpose.

“See what being open and honest can do?”

There’s that smile again.

And forget about lighting up a small country. It can most definitely light up a big one.

Tuesday is Bell Let’s Talk Day. For every text message sent and mobile and long-distance call made by Bell and Bell Aliant customers, every tweet using #BellLetsTalk and every Facebook share of the Bell Let’s Talk image, Bell will contribute five cents to mental health initiatives. Let’s help Clara bust down those walls!

By June Thompson - Montreal Gazette

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