By Chris Powell
STANDING AT A boardroom window in a
downtown Toronto hotel, six-time Canadian
Olympian Clara Hughes, a noted nature lover,
is trying in vain to catch a glimpse of a peregrine falcon nesting immediately next door.
It’s just after 9 a.m., but the city below is
already sweltering in nearly 30 C (86 F) heat
and humidity, forcing Hughes to put her hair
into a ponytail. “It’s really
bad for people with curly
hair, like me,” she explains.
With a pair of strappy
heels adding a couple of
inches to her 5-foot-9-inch
frame, Hughes is a commanding presence, her
toned arms and legs reflecting years of elite-level competition in both cycling and
Now 42, Hughes has
been officially retired from
Olympic competition since
2012. She won six medals
for Canada in 22 years of
competition, tying her with
speed skater Cindy Klassen for the most won
by a Canadian athlete. She was the Canadian
flag-bearer at the 2010 Vancouver Games, an
honour traditionally reserved for athletes
who embody the spirit of competition.
But while competitive sports might be in
her rear-view mirror, Hughes shows no sign
of riding into the sunset. The night before
meeting with The Connection, she attended a
gala event for Right to Play, a charity committed to the development of children in impoverished areas through sports; she sits on the
international advisory board.
Later in the day, she will leave Toronto to
resume hiking the Appalachian Trail, where
she has covered approximately 3,000 kilome-
tres—some with her husband, Peter Guzman,
but mostly by herself.
She describes this alter ego as a “hiking
machine,” capable of covering an average of
35 kilometres a day, all without feeling any
urgency to beat a clock.
The hike, she says, has been perfect preparation as she prepares to
embark on a fall book tour
promoting her new memoir, Open Heart, Open
Mind, which is being published this fall.
began writing the book
with Randy Starkman, the
late Toronto Star reporter
revered for his unwavering
support of the amateur
sports community. When
Starkman died of pneumo-nia-related illness in April
2012, the project languished
for about a year.
“I didn’t think I would
ever return to it,” says Hughes. “I just felt
‘Why am I going to do this?’ because we were
going to do it together.” She credits the support of her publisher and others, including
her husband, for helping get the project back
The result is a book that covers Hughes’
successful athletic career but is also deeply
personal, delving into her troubled childhood
as the daughter of an alcoholic father that ultimately saw her “drinking myself stupid in
stairwells,” smoking a pack of cigarettes a day
and using soft drugs.
Watching Canadian speed skater Gaétan
Boucher compete at the 1988 Calgary
Olympics, she writes, was a “transformative”
event, providing her life with purpose and a
desire to represent Canada internationally.
The book also provides candid insight
into the crippling depression that ultimately
led to Hughes becoming the public face of
Bell Let’s Talk, an annual event that works to
destigmatize the mental health issues that
affect as many as one in five Canadians.
It’s a cause that’s close to Hughes’ heart,
especially because, outwardly at least, she
seemed to have it all—a successful career and
the adoration of millions of Canadians—
despite feeling, as she writes in Open Heart,
Open Mind, “worthless” on the inside.
She admits to being “slightly nervous and
terrified” at the thought of her private life
being laid bare, but says it’s important to let
people know that there is a person with real
doubts and insecurities behind her public
persona as a decorated Canadian athlete.
“It’s really just about connecting and realizing how relative we all are to each other, and
how the human condition does not separate
struggle from joy, does not separate me from
you,” she says. “It’s just trying to deepen that
connection and let people know that not
everything is as it seems.”
It’s a message Hughes will continue to
relay and retain as she journeys into the next
stage of her life. C
Chris Powell is a Toronto-based journalist.
The Costco Connection
Open Heart, Open Mind is available in most
Olympian discusses public
highs and personal lows