It wasn’t the per­fect end­ing, but Clara Hughes steps off the stage with no re­grets

Says she skated ‘per­fect race’ to win bronze in 5,000 me­tres

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY ROBIN SHORT Robin Short is sports ed­i­tor at The Tele­gram in St. John’s, N.L., cur­rently on as­sign­ment at the Olympic Games.

VAN­COU­VER — It’s not the per­fect end­ing. That would have been a gold medal, in a stun­ning sprint to the fin­ish line, a sold out crowd on its feet, a photo fin­ish ...

But this was real life Wed­nes­day night, and for Clara Hughes, the re­mark­able Cana­dian speed skater, third place was still golden in her fi­nal Olympic Games.

There have been more dec­o­rated Cana­dian Olympic ath­letes — Cindy Klassen and her five-medal per­for­mance in Torino. There have been more stun­ning Olympic mo­ments — Sale and Pel­letier come to mind.

But there has never, all things con­sid­ered, been a more rec­og­niz­able or dec­o­rated Olympic ca­reer than that of Clara Hughes, who skated into the B.C. sun­set Wed­nes­day with a bronze medal in the 5,000 me­tres at the Rich­mond Olympic Oval, her last speed­skat­ing race.

“I dreamed of skat­ing the per­fect race,” she said a day af­ter col­lect­ing her sixth Olympic medal. “ That’s how I en­vi­sioned go­ing out. And I achieved that.”

Hughes com­peted in her first Olympic Games in 1996 in At­lanta, winning a pair of cycling bronze medals. She took part in the 2000 Games, again in cycling, and then it was three straight Win­ter Games as a speed skater: 2002 in Salt Lake City, where she won bronze, 2006 in Torino with gold and sil­ver and now 2010.

“It’s been quite a ride,” said the 37-year-old from Win­nipeg, who now calls the East­ern Town­ships out­side Montreal home. “But I’m looking for­ward to liv­ing life a lit­tle dif­fer­ently now.”

Af­ter the race, Hughes an­nounced she was do­nat­ing her $10,000 bronze-medal bonus to a lo­cal char­ity, the Take-a-Hike Pro­gram.

It takes 40 stu­dents from in­ner-city Van­cou­ver, who are deal­ing with abuse and ad­dic­tions, to the great out­doors, on foot, snow­shoes, skis, kayak, etc.

“It chal­lenges them in a way I feel sport has chal­lenged me,” she said.

It wasn’t that long ago Hughes was one of those kids she’s in­di­rectly help­ing with her bonus money.

Just 13 and grow­ing up in Win­nipeg, she was skip­ping school, drink­ing and do­ing drugs.

By 14, she was a pack-a-day smoker.

Un­til she saw a tele­vi­sion pro­file on the great Cana­dian speed skater, Gae­tan Boucher, dur­ing the 1988 Cal­gary Olympic Games.

“My life changed right there,” she said.

Within a month, she was reg­is­tered in the Win­nipeg Speed Skat­ing Club’s spring train­ing camp.

“I was in­spired to dream and care about some­thing in life,” said Canada’s flag bearer at the Open­ing Cer­e­monies. “ That was sport for me.

“ When I had some­thing in my life that meant some­thing, it ab­so­lutely shifted the di­rec­tion and it’s brought me here to­day 20 years later.”

Hughes’s time of 6:55.73 Wed­nes­day was faster than she had ex­pected, the quick­est time, ac­tu­ally, a skater had clocked in the com­pe­ti­tion by that point. She pumped her fist as she crossed the fin­ish line.

With six skaters to fol­low, she watched as her lead slipped, how­ever, from first to sec­ond, to third. But she would fall no far­ther. “Ev­ery time I stepped on the Olympic stage,” she said, “I gave my very best. Wed­nes­day was no ex­cep­tion.

“I raced my first Olympic race the same way I raced my last Olympic race. I just went for it.”

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