Summer and winter Olympian Clara Hughes hopes to eliminate some of the stigma about mental health issues as she kicks off her Big Ride today. The ride, scheduled to take 110 days, will see the Olympian facing the elements through 12,000 kilometers as she brings her message of mental health awareness to various stops throughout Canada.
Hughes is a six-time Canadian Olympic champion, having medaled in both the summer and winter Olympics. She has been an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness issues, including depression and bipolar disorder, for several years. Hughes has openly lived with depression for last several years and her father, who died in 2013, and sister both had bipolar disorder. Her sister continues to live with the condition.
Clara’s Big Ride is funded by the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, for which she is the national ambassador. The ride starts in Toronto today and finishes in Ottawa on Canada Day, July 1. Her plan is to circle the country in a counter-clockwise fashion and cycle with a variety of partners, including Peter Guzman, her husband.
Hughes says this is the biggest project she has ever undertaken – strong words from a woman who has medaled in both the summer and winter Olympics. That alone places her in elite company; only 128 athletes in all, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, have decided two Olympics are better than one and have competed in both summer and winter Olympic games. The athletes who have medaled in both summer and winter Olympic games are even more select; according to a Feb. 19, 2014 article from the Sun Sentinel, there are only five athletes in Olympic history who have medalled in both games.
In spite of the extensive training that Hughes has undergone for this ride, she says the ride is really about bringing mental health awareness to Canadians. She is pedaling to try to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and she says she wants the children in the current generation to be able to grow up without knowing a stigma around mental health conditions such as depression.
To see Hughes, she would not seem like the Canadian face of depression. She is perhaps best known for her wide smile that last lit up the Olympic oval in speed skating in 2012. However, she has been open about her struggles with depression and notes that she likely struggled with it because the condition runs in her family. Born in 1972, Hughes was raised in Winnipeg and her parents divorced when she was 9. Her father, whom she says experienced undiagnosed bipolar disorder in addition to being an alcoholic, and her mother ensured she was well-loved, but it was a difficult upbringing in many respects.
Hughes says she began smoking regularly by the time she hit Grade 7 and was already experienced in the world of alcohol as well. However, when speed skater Gaetan Boucher lit up the Olympic oval in Calgary’s Winter Olympics, Hughes took notice, and shortly thereafter, was enrolled in the sport. She also demonstrated a talent for competitive cycling and before long was a world-class athlete. She says getting enrolled in sports saved her life.
However, by the time she had won two bronze medals in the 1996 Summer Olympics for cycling and medaled four more times over the course of the next few years, she was hiding her battle with depression. It was not until she finally decided to get help that she gained the tools to help deal with the condition. She notes how fortunate she was that she got the help she needed; as an athlete, she had the access to learn how to deal and also the support of her team, who essentially placed her on the injured list until she was able to come back strong. Hughes notes that there are many who struggle with depression that are not that lucky.
The Olympian has been involved with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign for the last several years, and hopes to get her message of understanding about mental health awareness out to the 95 communities she pedals to over the course of the next 110 days. Hughes says that as she continues to pedal across the country, her father would have been proud that she was using a sport she loves to get the word out about a condition that plagues so many.
By Christina St-Jean