Canada Today: Clara’s Big Ride Hits Home

In honour of Bell Let’s Talk Day, which encourages Canadians to have an open and honest conversation about mental health on a local and national level, I thought I should break from my usual nostalgia-tinged blog posts and revisit a more recent encounter with one of Canada’s finest ambassadors for mental health awareness.

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The woman in this picture is Clara Hughes. She’s standing in front of the Canadian flag, which she carried during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Those who follow sports know Hughes as an accomplished athlete, with a total of six Olympic medals in the very different sports of short-track speed skating and cycling. But by the time she arrived in my neck of the woods in the spring of 2014, she was already gaining wider fame as one of the most prominent voices of mental health awareness, sharing her often-painful story in the hopes of encouraging others to break free of the stigma that has surrounded mental health for so long.

So I’ve decided to share two pieces I wrote for my newspaper, The Reporter, about Clara’s Big Ride. Covering 110 kilometres across Canada between mid-March and the end of June – officially ending in Ottawa on July 1, aka. Canada Day – the remarkable journey made stops in the towns of Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury, and I had the good fortune to hear her inspiring words during a ceremony at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre.

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First, here’s the official news story I wrote about Clara’s Big Ride for the April 23, 2014 edition of The Reporter:

PORT HAWKESBURY – A Big Ride with a big message has left a lasting impression in several Strait area communities.

Six-time Olympic medallist Clara Hughes brought her Clara’s Big Ride national cycling tour to the Towns of Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury on Thursday and Friday, making a handful of other local stops as Hughes continued her campaign on behalf of Bell Let’s Talk, a national program designed to promote local mental health initiatives and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health.

Speaking to a packed house at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre’s Bear Head Conference Room Thursday night during an event sponsored by the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce (SACC), the Winnipeg native recalled “a woman who really melted my heart” hours earlier at her official welcome event at Port Hawkesbury’s branch of the BMO Bank of Montreal.

“[She was] a woman who looked like my mom, and she said, ‘I don’t want an autograph, I don’t want a picture, I sewed something for you’ – it was a Nova Scotia tartan and a little pincushion made up of the Cape Breton tartan,” Hughes recalled.

“And then she said, ‘You know, I struggle too – I struggle a lot and this really helps me.’”

Addressing the Civic Centre crowd the night before a visit to the Port Hawkesbury Nursing Home, Hughes admitted that she did not expect to become a national spokesperson for mental illness issues when she first shared her lifelong struggles with depression four years ago.

However, she launched her 110-day, 11,000-kilometre trek across Canada – which began in Toronto on March 14 and will wrap up in Ottawa on Canada Day – after realizing that the need to spark meaningful conversations about mental illness should extend beyond the annual Bell Let’s Talk Day, which occurs at the end of January.

“More often than not, I’m hearing a story of, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where I can go for help, I am at the end of my rope, I don’t know how much longer I can live like this,’” Hughes pointed out.

“It’s an illness. It’s not something that you choose to be and then choose to just not get over. It takes over you…but then, sometimes, it lets you fly.”

Taking out her six Olympic medals in cycling and short-track speed-skating to show the Civic Centre audience, Hughes then declared that none of her medals are as important to her as the opportunity to engage ordinary Canadians in honest discussions about what she described as a “beautiful struggle.”

“The human condition is made up of struggle and joy, so why do we not accept and celebrate the struggle? It is what makes us complete,” she insisted.

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And, because I didn’t think I could fit nearly enough of Clara’s inspiring words in my actual story, here’s my personal account of the Port Hawkesbury event in the weekly column that I also write for The Reporter:

Clara Hughes has accomplished a lot on her cross-country cycling tour to encourage discussion of the issues connected to mental illness.

But one of her greatest achievements on the trip might be her single-handed destruction of the concept that a gold-medal victory is the only way an Olympic athlete can win her country’s hearts.

From the second she entered the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre for an “Evening With Clara Hughes” hosted by the Strait Area Chamber of Commerce earlier this month, she had every one of us.

Considering her long-time struggles with depression – including the admission that she “never let go of being a five-year-old hiding in the closet and hearing my Dad screaming at my Mom and thinking it was all my fault” – it’s astonishing that Hughes refuses to let any number of things get her down.

Got some bad weather for a portion of Clara’s Big Ride? Then joke about it: “I had a lot of wind burn today. I tried to cover it up with makeup, but I don’t think it worked very well.”

Or, in the case of the “deluge” that greeted her as she headed from Halifax to Cape Breton on April 16-17, simply embrace humanity: “A lady stopped on the roadside at about 110 kilometres in, and she was smiling and waving and she said, ‘Aren’t you a little spot of sunshine on this rainy day!’ And I was just like, ‘I love Nova Scotia!’”

Surprised that Central Nova MP Peter MacKay doesn’t seem to be dressed for cycling when he joins you for 2.1 kilometres of the trip in New Glasgow? Salute his moxie: “You guys are tough as nails – true respect.”

Wisely, Hughes played to the Civic Centre crowd with the revelation that Cape Breton was home to one of her first athletic triumphs: “I even won my first big race in Sydney, Nova Scotia, as a 19-year-old – I’m not kidding. I raced on the Cabot Trail, and I felt like I was in Europe!”

And she reminded us that this early splash into the world of amateur athletics came only six years after she had dropped out of school and immersed herself in smoking, drinking, and drug abuse in Winnipeg’s inner city, before discovering the joy of the 1988 Calgary Olympics and finding inspiration from Canadian speed skater Gaetan Boucher.

“I represent Canada,” she told the Port Hawkesbury gathering.

“I’m an Olympic athlete, and I had a support network around me that wanted to bring me back to win again. But that is the exception – that is not the reality for everyday Canadians, including my family.”

Even with this Olympic “support network,” Clara’s Big Ride marked the first time that she was able to confide her struggles to her mother, who had watched her family spiral out of control over the previous four decades.

“I couldn’t do that to my mom when I went through depression, because of everything that she dealt with,” she insisted. “My mom actually found out about my depression when I talked about it on TV during this campaign… [Before that], I thought that I was burdening her.”

But on this night in Port Hawkesbury, Clara Hughes has set her burdens free and has an emphatic message for the many young people – from inside and outside the Strait area – that have come to hear her speak about the mental illness that has hobbled her, and so many others, over the years.

“You have voices, so use them,” she implored. “Use them loud and clear, and make our country what it can be when it comes to mental health.”

We will, Clara. Thank you for riding through our community – and our hearts – with the words, honesty and enthusiasm that we all needed to hear.

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Footnote: Over the years I have faced my own struggles with anxiety and seen the damage that anxiety and depression can do to those closest to me. I am astounded by how many friends and acquaintances I routinely add to my personal list of those affected by mental health issues. The struggle is real. Bell Canada is to be commended for taking on this issue, but I hope we as Canadians will keep these conversations going, and both demand and carry out action from our leaders on this issue, long after the latest Bell Let’s Talk Day has faded into the mist.

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