A Bittersweet Farewell - Athlete Journal by Clara Hughes

As I stood gazing down the steep, rough road dropping to the valley below, I realized it was time to say goodbye. I’m always filled with a mixture of emotions this time of the year, just when the leaves give their first hint of autumn in subtle shades of yellow and hues of brilliant red. The indication that nature is ready to move on marks the time when my husband and I close up our home perched deep in the woods of the Eastern townships of Quebec and head west. Late summer is when our training season turns into the skating season.

While I stood there, silently appreciating the rustle of leaves, the faint crispness in the breeze, the last of the wildflowers lining the rough road climbing up to our house in the hills, I began to think of four years earlier, and a very similar goodbye. Then, like now, I remember feeling a vivid awareness that I was setting off to do something big, and that when I returned to my haven in the hills I would be a changed person.

I was heading off to the Olympics, and though the Games were still months away then, as they are now, I knew that leaving home meant that it was real, that my path had narrowed to the point of having one sole destination.

I remember getting up early and draining all the pipes, closing windows, draping furniture with sheets and saying goodbye to the place that offers so much peace and stability in my transient life. Like a sailor setting out to sea, I felt a strange melancholy yet at the same time excitement for the adventure that lay ahead.

Four years ago, we drove across country with a loaded pick-up truck: bikes, winter clothes, espresso machine and a whole lot of other stuff. We arrived and set up our temporary home here in Calgary. This year, it’s a little bit different, with a condo ready at all times to come to and a short, four hour plane trip spanning much of this huge country.

But the emotions are the same.

Like many adventures I’ve taken in my short life, this is another stimulating step into the unknown that makes me feel most alive. With the sadness of leaving home, I am rewarded with the excitement of a new beginning as I set out on the journey of striving for an Olympic Games.

All that I have achieved, or perhaps just missed achieving, means nothing now that we are into the final half-year build-up to the Games. Success or failure in the years between that once-every-four-year chance for that elusive moment of perfection, timed perfectly, offer little when the Olympics arrive. The Olympics are in a whole other realm and it’s this reality that crushes some and raises others to levels never seen before.

The countless hours I’ve put into my fitness and my current level of strength are but a starting point. The months ahead are where the preparation begins, all that I’ve done is create a base of fitness and mental strength to support my body and brain for when things go wrong, and they will. It’s the here and the now that matters most and, already, I count every day that dwindles with each breath I take as opportunity to learn.

This process is a unique one, especially when there is only one goal in mind. This focus is dangerous because it’s easy to become obsessed with the sensations of working towards this goal and forget about the potential for growth, in the emotional sense.

Training, in the physical sense, almost becomes the easy part when compared with learning and growth. As an athlete, if all that’s important is the feeling of strength and superiority, it is easy to become disillusioned and fragile, because in the end athletes are only human and the body can only do so much. I feel a need for growth in other areas, and always seek inspiration emotionally as well as the obvious improvement in fitness that happens when you train.

What allow me to feel most alive are the connections I make with influences outside the normal confines of mastering a sport. These very things cannot be sought out; they cannot be bought, controlled or created. They come to those who have an open mind, an open heart and an awareness that there is more that goes on in the world and humanity than what happens within the limitations of sport.

The things I speak of are the very ingredients that have gone into my own Olympic moments. They are words from a friend, exposure to the history and original philosophies of the Olympic Games, energy from the natural world like the flow of song from a bird when I have felt overwhelmed by the pressure around me.

These things seem small, but when I have felt most alone, when I am on the starting line with the pressure of competition at the highest level on my shoulders, these are the very things that bring my feet back down on the ground. They bring me peace when all around is chaos, and allow me to remember who I am and in turn allow me to do what I do best, to get the most out of my human capacity and then dig down deep into my soul for that extra ounce that just might make the difference when hundredths of a second are on the line.

These are the things that I remember when enough time has passed to forget the feeling of standing on the podium with an Olympic medal around my neck. Many of these things I find at home. That I have a place that provides so much of this stimulation is enough to get me through the next six months, just knowing of a place that is so special and pure.

That, for me, is home.