On 25 February 2006, Clara Hughes was crowned Olympic champion in the 5,000m at the Olympic Oval in Turin. Her success in speed skating, winning a total of four medals came after a podium finish in road cycling in Atlanta, 10 years earlier. The Canadian champion is the only athlete to win multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer Games.
This is how Clara Hughes describes her Olympic adventures (three Summer and three Winter Games): “My Olympic experiences, many ended with medals. Those medals don’t define what the experience was.” And her extraordinary sports career climaxed on 25 February 2006 at the Lingotto Oval in Turin. As she says: “That was the only time I won the Olympics!” Her victory was in the 5,000m, skating in the eighth and final pair against the three-time defending champion, Germany’s Claudia Pechstein.
This is how she describes her feelings: “I remember looking at Claudia and thinking: ‘She thinks she’s going to win again.’ Something special is going to happen tonight. And when we started, I remember I was behind Claudia, and as the race went on I was starting to catch her. And then, as we got into two laps to go, all of a sudden we were even. I hurt so much, but in that moment I got lower and longer and stronger, and I attacked that race as if I was fighting for my life. And I remember almost crying from the pain, and then getting to the final stretch and throwing my blade, and then looking up at the time and seeing 6 minutes and 59 seconds and change, and thinking ‘My team-mates skated seven minutes, I just won the Olympics!’” This was her fifth and most impressive Olympic medal, but not the last!
A difficult childhood before an epiphany moment and podium finishes at Atlanta 1996
Clara Hughes was born on 27 September 1972 in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. Hers was a difficult childhood, with an alcoholic father and her parents’ separation when she was nine. “My sister and I both basically hit the streets. We both had a lot of issues: drugs and alcohol. That started when I was 12 years old. And by the time I was 16, I wasn’t going to school any more. I was drinking a lot, binge drinking, passing out under street posts. I just wanted to self-destruct.”
And then came her epiphany. When flicking through the television channels, she came across the speed skating events at the 1988 Games in Calgary. She saw her compatriot, the 1984 1,000 and 1,500m Olympic champion Gaétan Boucher attempt to defend his 1,500m title in his last-ever Olympic race. The Quebec-born skater set off at a record-breaking pace, but faded to finish ninth. “Then he was just shaking his head like he’d failed. Seeing somebody hurt themselves so much for something: it was the first time I connected to something positive. And that afternoon, my life changed. I didn’t know how, or why, or when, or where, but I knew I was going to go to the Olympics.”
After she started speed skating as a 16-year-old, Hughes was recruited by a cycling coach. She was really strong and fast, especially in road races, and she quickly found herself in the national team, competing in her first Games at the age of 23, in 1996 in Atlanta. In the individual road race, she was one of the leading riders in the final sprint for the line, which was won by France’s Jeannie Longo, who finished ahead of Italy’s Imelda Chiappa and Hughes herself, who took the bronze. Twelve days later, she was back on the podium, coming third in the time trial, 0.13 seconds behind silver medallist Longo and less than a second behind Russian gold medallist Zulfiya Zabirova.
After becoming Canada’s first woman to win an Olympic medal in road cycling, she sank into a deep depression. But she dragged herself back up and competed at her second Games in Sydney, in 2000. She finished 43rd in the road race, and sixth in the time trial. But, she says: “Those races to this day are probably the two I’m most proud of; because it taught me it’s not about medals, it is about excellence and this beautiful thing called ‘trying’. That’s what brought me back to speed skating. I went back to speed skating at 27 years old. That’s not even possible!”
A new successful career in speed skating
In the words of Norway’s four-time Olympic champion Johan Olav Koss, the hero of the Lillehammer 1994 Games, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in the history of speed skating. Somebody who has not grown up with skates, who doesn’t understand how to skate like learning from when you’re a little child. Her determination, her passion for the sport, her love to glide on the ice, made her the best in the world in this sport.” Within seven weeks, she had joined the national team; within three months, she had achieved her first top 10 finish at the World Championships; and in 17 months, she was at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, where she won her first medal on the ice, bronze in the 5,000m.
World champion over that distance in 2004 in Seoul (Hughes won a total of six World Championship medals in speed skating until 2008), she then triumphed at the Turin Games in 2006 where, with Kristina Grove and Cindy Classen, she also won a silver medal in the team pursuit. The Canadians were beaten in the final by the Germans.
Four years later in Vancouver, Hughes was the flagbearer for the Canadian team at the Opening Ceremony. At the Richmond Olympic Oval, she finished fifth in the 3,000m, then third in the 5,000m, “but skating better than I ever had in my life. And when I crossed the line, I remember thinking: ‘This is it; I’m done.’” At the Winter Games, yes, but not at the Summer Games, as there she was again back on the saddle for London 2012, where she finished fifth in the time trial.
She is one of five athletes to have won medals at the Summer and Winter Games. But Hughes is the only one to win more than one medal at each edition. Two bronze medals in cycling, and a gold, a silver and two bronze in speed skating. “It’s like where I come from I should never have gone on to do what I did. But if I can do it, so can anyone. I was a kid who was transformed because of sport, and it fundamentally shifted the direction of my life. It’s given me a life, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”