It started with my being asked to be the flag-bearer. I was sure I had the capacity to carry our flag and still perform. My first race was thirty-six hours after the march into BC Place, but I wasn’t concerned. Without hesitation, I accepted. The Vancouver Winter Games in 2010 were my fifth games. I thought I’d been through it all but competing at home took the stress to a new level. I was propelled from the hermetic existence of training and became, for a few days, the single focus of the biggest sporting event in Canadian history.
Richmond City Hall became Olympic central for the press conference. The secrecy surrounding the identity of the flag-bearer ended there on January 29, 2010. I stood at the top of an ornate staircase that wound down to a sea of newspaper reporters, TV media crews, politicians, Olympic officials, teammates, and citizens. I felt an elation equalling my best athletic moments. For the first time in my life, I felt that bliss without having to skate or ride myself through a world of pain.
The press conference turned my elation to despair. All my confidence and excitement was shattered as soon as I entered the obligatory media scrum. Reporters asked about the flag-bearer curse, the cost of venues, and protests on the streets. Anchor Wendy Mesley jokingly introduced me as “a hard-drinking . . . troublemaker” on CBC’s The National.
I had no idea that after agreeing to carry my country’s flag I’d be expected to be an expert on all things Olympic, but I tried to answer all the controversial questions as well as I could.
I left the press conference in a state of shock. I’d made a mistake and a big one at that. There was no way out, and I knew it. My fifth Olympic Games had begun.
I sat alone in the apartment that’d been provided as part of our home-team advantage. My husband, Peter, set it up and made sure I had everything I needed to succeed, but I knew none of this would help with how I was feeling. I opened my laptop to write my coach an e-mail, thinking she’d have some solid advice. That’s when I saw an e-mail from my good friend Tewanee Joseph.
Tewanee was the CEO of the Four Host First Nations (FHFN), made up of the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Every Olympic moment would take place on their territorial land. I’d met him a few years earlier when looking for a connection to the Olympics deeper than sport. I’d sent him a note asking for his help in connecting me with the First Nations youth. I wanted to share the Olympics with them and, in turn, feel a connection to their beautiful land.
His e-mail was an invitation to a brushing-off ceremony. While all my competitors moved deeper into bubbles that isolated them from everything but sport, Peter, a few of my closest support staff, and I travelled to find out exactly what this ceremony was.
Tewanee’s home was on the small patch of Squamish First Nations Reserve on Vancouver’s North Shore. We walked into the warmth of the house, greeted by an abundance of food and smiles. All offered warm hugs; all were eager to make us welcome. After having been more or less institutionalized through a program of elite training, not to mention the pressure I put on myself, I was relieved to relax and forget my responsibilities.
These feelings strengthened when Tewanee’s wife, Rae-Ann, gave me a silver hummingbird pendant her son had picked out for me. She told me it would give me wings to fly. I wore it the entire Games.
The brushing-off ceremony was conducted amid candles, singing, and chanting, with kids laughing and playing in the background. An elder addressed us in his native language. His gestures and soothing voice, like the tones of Mother Nature, made me feel he was telling the story of the earth, wind, sun, and rain. I sat smiling with the others, taking in the energy and the calmness of his voice, and feeling completely within the moment.
Another elder addressed each of us in turn, opening our hearts to the energy of the flame and brushing away negativity. He told us, “I cannot heal you of your pain. Only you can heal yourself with your open heart and your open mind.”
At one point, Tewanee’s thirteen-year-old daughter stood in the middle of the room, crying. Though my friends and I didn’t know what was happening, we listened respectfully as the elders told her, “Thank you for sharing your beautiful tears with us. Let them flow.”
Since I knew I carried a pool of raw feelings and unshed tears inside of me, I was grateful to see such despair welcomed as powerful and good.
One of the elders spoke to me in English: “You can only attract success for yourself if you want every single one of your competitors to be good and strong. When you wish good things for others, this comes back to you. The strength to be kind is not often asked for, but this is perhaps the most important strength to have.”
The elder then addressed Peter and my team: “You are Clara’s force field, her circle of strength—there to support her. She needs you.” They all turned their eyes toward me. I felt utterly loved.
The stress of bearing the flag and competing melted away. I left armed with clarity, ready for the Games, our Games.
As host nation, Team Canada would be the last of eighty-two nations to enter the stadium. That meant a long, restless wait. There were 206 of us in our red jackets, impatiently watching the ceremony on our cellphones, hearing the boisterous cheers as the crowd welcomed each team—Albania and Ghana and Ethiopia with only 1 member each, the United States with 215.
Now, it was Team Canada’s turn to cross the threshold into the expanse of BC Place. I could see little soap bubbles falling like snow from the sky, a magical faux-winter wonderland in the unfathomable hugeness of the stadium.
I examined my flag holster with belated concern: Did I use one hand or two to insert the pole? No one had explained any of this to me. As the gap widened between the rest of the team and me, I felt stranded, but the faces around me were alight with the wonder of the moment.
A volunteer yelled: “Take the flag!” He thrust it into my hand, then counted down: “Five, four, three, two . . .”
I was ordered to march, but before I did, I took a moment to look up at the perfect red-on-white maple leaf, waving like one of nature’s own on a late fall Manitoba day.
I held up our flag, proudly, for the whole world to see, knowing that as our country’s flag-bearer, I had become something much bigger, stronger, and more beautiful than just me. I remembered the motto of these Games: With Glowing Hearts. And realized: This is it.
Open Heart, Open Mind
In a world where winning meant everything, her biggest competitor was herself.
In 2006, when Clara Hughes stepped onto the Olympic podium in Torino, Italy, she became the first and only athlete ever to win multiple medals in both Summer and Winter Games. Four years later, she was proud to carry the Canadian flag at the head of the Canadian team as they participated in the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. But there’s another story behind her celebrated career as an athlete, behind her signature billboard smile.
While most professional athletes devote their entire lives to training, Clara spent her teenage years using drugs and drinking to escape the stifling home life her alcoholic father had created in Elmwood, Winnipeg. She was headed nowhere fast when, at sixteen, she watched transfixed in her living room as gold medal speed skater Gaétan Boucher effortlessly raced in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Dreaming of one day competing herself, Clara channeled her anger, frustration and raw ambition into the endurance sports of speed skating and cycling. By 2010, she had become a six-time Olympic medalist.
But after more than a decade in the gruelling world of professional sports that stripped away her confidence and bruised her body, Clara began to realize that her physical extremes, her emotional setbacks, and her partying habits were masking a severe depression. After winning bronze in the last speed skating race of her career, she decided to retire from that sport, determined to repair herself. She has emerged as one of our most committed humanitarians, advocating for a variety of social causes both in Canada and around the world. In 2010, she became national spokesperson for Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk campaign in support of mental health awareness, using her Olympic standing to share the positive message of the power of forgiveness.
Told with honesty and passion, Open Heart, Open Mind is Clara’s personal journey through physical and mental pain to a life where love and understanding can thrive. This revelatory and inspiring story will touch the hearts of all Canadians.
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Book Cover Image (jpg): Open Heart, Open Mind
Canadian Origin Hardcover 9781476756981
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Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide
1. Throughout Clara’s sporting career, she endures not only intense physical pain, but also incredible emotional instability. In your opinion, does Clara’s emotionally traumatic childhood contribute to her capacity for physical endurance? How did her chaotic inner thoughts influence her focus on cycling and skating?
2. Discuss your perception of mental health before and after reading Clara’s story. What have you learned through reading her memoir?
3. The ability to transition between speed skating, cycling, skating, and then back to cycling is an incredible feat of strength, dedication, and adaptability. What can we learn from Clara’s willingness to start from scratch by participating in these two sports?
4. Clara realizes that much of her pain is connected to the guilt she feels about her family’s dysfunction. Though some of this pain is mitigated by helping others, ultimately Clara must let go of her sense of responsibility for her family members. Are you or is someone you know struggling with a similar situation?
5. As the title suggests, readers are welcomed into the inner workings of Clara’s mind and heart. What is your opinion about being so publicly honest? How will learning about Clara’s inner and outer struggles benefit her readership?
6. In the “permanent off-season” after her retirement, Clara had to see more