Olympian Clara Hughes willing to talk about mental health

Olympian Clara Hughes chats with CBC Radio
Olympian Clara Hughes chats with CBC Radio's Shelagh Rogers during the Clara's Big Ride tour stop at Nanaimo's Beban Park Social Centre on Friday. The 12,000-kilometre bike trip is raising awareness of mental illness.
— image credit: GREG SAKAKI/The News Bulletin

Clara Hughes came to Nanaimo and said, 'Let's talk,' and now it's up to the community to carry on the conversation.

The six-time Olympian stopped by the Beban Park Social Centre on Friday as part of Clara's Big Ride, a 12,000-kilometre bike tour around Canada in support of mental health.

It was her fourth community event on Day 64 of a 110-day journey that started in Toronto in mid-March and will end in Ottawa on Canada Day.

"This ride has been, quite honestly, the ride of my life and will be the ride of my life because of the connections made and because it is getting people talking," Hughes said.

The cyclist and speed skater is the only athlete in history to win multiple medals at both the Winter Olympics and Summer Olympics. She isn't criss-crossing the country to talk about all those victories, though – she's opening up about her personal story of mental illness.

"You look at me now and you can't imagine that, because people that succeed come from certain places, right? I don't come from that place. My reality was a broken one," she said.

She had an alcoholic father and a manic-depressive sister and it made her own depression seem tame by comparison. So she kept it to herself. Sport didn't so much save her as distract her.

"I actually thought that being good at something was going to fix everything that was really going on inside and that was a whole lot of emptiness and loneliness and worthlessness," Hughes said.

The fame, the accolades, the appreciation – none of that helped. She got so low that she quit sport and for two years did hardly anything but eat, sleep and cry.

"When I reached out and finally accepted that help, I came back to life," she said. "Slowly. It took time. It takes time."

It was hard, and so too is advocacy. It's important to Hughes to get people talking, and that can lead to big, important conversations, sometimes about life and death. She recalled an e-mail from a woman, a successful lawyer, who was contemplating suicide and reached out while Hughes was thousands of kilometres away in Tucson, Ariz., training for the Olympics.

"I'm sitting there bawling my eyes out because I was like, 'How can I be so selfish, thinking that sport matters more than human beings?' It's been hard," Hughes said. "Because I can't even help myself half the time and I want to help everyone."

Travelling around the entire country is a way to do that. Hughes's visit was a way to garner donations for the Canadian Mental Health Association, plug the Bell Let's Talk fundraiser and make an impact.

Hughes hopes people will educate themselves about mental health services available, and help each other, and help themselves, and talk.

"One in one Canadians are affected by mental illness. That's the reality," she said. "People are starting to come out of the shadows and that's what's made this ride so special."

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