Winter Wonderland - Athlete Journal by Clara Hughes

A wall of tree-lined granite fills my window view boasting a fresh white blanket after days of snow. I’m in Inzell, Germany, host city of the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships and a Bavarian gem bragging in scenic terms with its outdoor oval nestled below inspiring slopes. Seemingly static yet so alive, these mountains provide a valuable example, as if urging me to not let others see the energy brewing inside myself as I complete my final preparations for the upcoming races. Instead, I hoard this fuel, hoping to use it when it really counts. I feel like a volcano, with pressure building daily, waiting to explode simultaneously with the blast of the gun signaling the race is on.

This is the feeling of being alive, of working through fears and frustration, grueling training and toil that leads to the ability to rest, recover and perform with excitement and a feeling of limitlessness. My nerves sharpen and I move through each stride on the ice with an acute awareness, no longer struggling with technical flaws. What I tell my body to do, it does; what it is trained to do flows through me with ease.

It’s the same every year, around this time, when the most important races are fast approaching and the long-awaited final taper begins. For months, training rarely seems ease, resulting in a level of fatigue that I often wonder how I perform under, yet get through knowing the resulting strength, speed and endurance will make the struggle worthwhile.

Every step taken during the season is deliberate, moving me closer to my goals: the World Championships, or, every four years, the Olympics. And now, as the days dwindle, I wonder how another year can almost be over. It’s the last race of the pre-Olympic year, a sort of dry run of the Games themselves. Mistakes that are made, elusive perfect planning and lessons amounting to experience are valuable tools to bring into next season, where every inch must be honed to perfection if one hopes to perform under the stress of intense Olympic pressure.

Looking back at the past few months, I cannot help but feel bewildered by the path I’ve followed. My plan has gone anything but according to plan, yet I am here, days away from competition, and feel like everything is coming together and I could not have planned it more perfectly.

There is an energy building within that is familiar, as if a voice from deep within whispers words of confidence that radiate through my muscles, saying ‘you’re okay, you’re strong, you’re ready.’ The thought of stepping onto the starting line, in front of the world; against the world, preoccupies my psyche. To do this with the maple leaf on my back transcends the possibilities of normal motivation into very real sensations of invincibility. I am ready.

But, am I really ready? I should be worried that sickness consumed my being, at varying levels, for three recent long weeks. I was able to train at times, even able to race the World All-Round Championships like much of the rest of the Canadian Team, with most all of us ill yet somehow able to perform. It finally came to an end with a week of bed-ridden coughing, sneezing, sleeping and, ultimately, bronchitis. Basically, what normal people suffer in the winter season. Only racing at the world-class level, expecting and being expected to perform, puts a different level of ‘sick’ into the ‘ness.’

Missing what seemed like crucial training was frustrating, yet rest was what I needed most. Instead of feeling concerned, I felt relieved. Relieved that if my body was tired, my motivation not what it should be, that if, perhaps, I had a little bit too much stress in my day-to-day life, my body was able to revolt as it did. It forced me to stay in bed until I was ready to move again.

Because I was out of balance, trying so hard to feel good through the endless blocks of training, when I should have accepted the feeling of fatigue as reasonable, I pushed my body and spirit to the limit and came up empty, with no will to fight the inevitable cold and flu germs.

And now, as the training dwindles and the energy builds I sit, patiently, in my hotel room, trying not to try and make the balance happen. It is something that must occur naturally, with all the elements falling into place.

What’s left is to see where this compares to the rest of the world. But these powerful emotions growing daily make the comparisons seem insignificant. Each step moves me forward; each race I skate puts the feelings into motion, in turn allowing me to feel the rapture of being alive. I thrive in these thoughts and cannot help but feel satisfied just knowing I have the chance to try.