Hughes was inspired to dream, then she made it all came true

Robin
Robin Short
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Speedskating

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 it's 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.

Need some motivation to turn your life around? Look no further than Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. At 14, she was a pack-a-day smoker and using drugs. Today, at 37, she is arguably Canada's greatest Olympic athlete ever. - Photo by The Canadian Press

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 it's 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 - see Klassen, Cindy 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' clocking 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."

rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Richmond Olympic Oval, Winnipeg Speed Skating Club

Geographic location: Vancouver, Torino, Winnipeg Atlanta Salt Lake City Montreal Canada

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