By Bonnie Learning
TC media — Happy Valley-Goose Bay
One of Canada’s most accomplished Olympian’s has made her mark in Nunatsiavut.
Clara Hughes — the only Canadian Olympic medal winner in both Winter and Summer Olympics in speed skating and cycling respectively — stopped in Nain for a four-day visit with local youth and elders.
The visit to Nain came on the heels of a two-week adventure in the Torngat National Park for Hughes and her husband, Peter Guzman.
“My husband has been to Labrador a couple of times” explained Hughes in an interview with TC Media.
“After kayaking from Hebron to Nain in 2007, he met some fantastic people in the community and always told me I had to go there.”
Hughes said she became a bit of a “project” for Torngat National Parks staff Gary Baikie and Judy Rowell, to try to get her to the community to take part in an annual summer youth program for young people from both Nunatsiavut and Nunavik.
Hughes and her husband travelled to the Torngat National Park for a two-week adventure for the first part of their Labrador experience, where she said local guides shared much of their culture and stories.
As their time at the park drew to a close, Gary Baikie asked Hughes if there might “be a chance” she could spend a few days in Nain. Hughes did not hesitate at the opportunity.
“Being in Nain added so much to being in this part of the world,” she said.
Heather Angnatok helped organize Clara’s visit while in the community. She is the Youth Administrator for the Division of Youth, Elders and Recreation with the Nunatsiavut Government.
“Of course I jumped at this opportunity as I knew who she was and what she represented,” recalled Angnatok, when she was contacted by Parks Canada for assistance.
“I immediately approached other individuals to plan a variety of events that would include the whole community. So we formed a planning committee and the ideas flew from there. With help from a lot of people, we were able to successfully plan and organize this huge event, not only for Clara, but for her husband as well.”
Angnatok added Hughes was very open with her time, and most everyone in Nain had a an opportunity to “hear her stories, see her smile and to hear her laugh.”
“Nain has fallen in love with Canada’s all-time favourite Olympian,” gushed Angnatok.
While in Nain, Hughes also participated in a 5-km ‘fun run’, with dozens of people taking part.
“We saw over 50 participants come out to walk or run the 5 K course,” said Angnatok. “Clara was phenomenal. Not only did she run it, but she stopped and walked with others and encouraged and thanked everyone for getting out and participating.”
Angnatok said Hughes “motivated the whole crowd” and watched everyone cross the finish line.
“She later signed autographs on their running bibs that we had made up just for this event.”
Hughes said she was very impressed with local youth programming that focused on mental health and other issues, in particular, a program called “Going Off, Growing Strong,”, a community freezer program for at-risk youth.
“This initiative takes at-risk youth from the community and teaches them local ways with regards to hunting, harvesting and gathering,” explained Hughes.
“These kids get the skills their parents and grandparents used, and contribute local foods and berries to the community freezer for use by elders and others in the community.
“The results have been incredible, with an improvement (in behaviour) of almost 100 per cent,” she marvelled.
“You could see they were so stoked to be there (at the Torngat National Park), where we had an overnight trip.”
Hughes said the youth who graduate from the program will go on to be junior leaders to other at-risk youth. She believes so strongly in the program, she even made a personal donation of $10,000.
“I am leaving here so inspired,” she said. “I really believe in these kids ... their capacity and resilience. I honestly see myself in them.”
Hughes explained she used to be an ‘at-risk’ youth herself, while growing up in Winnipeg, and shared many of the same struggles as the kids in Nain.
“I brought my Olympic medals to Nain and people must look at them and think, ‘I must have it easy,’” she said.
“But I shared my experiences and struggles growing up, my mental health issues with depression. And I talked about how in 1988 after watching the (Seoul) Olympics, I found sport ... and it got me out of the drugs and alcohol and smoking, and I went back to school. Whether it’s sports, music, culture — we all need something to give us purpose and pride, confidence. The youth need to open their hearts and minds to what’s around them.”
Hughes said a lot of the youth shared their personal stories with her about their own struggles.
“I felt honoured they felt comfortable enough to talk with me,” she said. “It made me feel good and made them see I am really human. I may have had much success, but I also had my struggles, just like them, and I felt really connected and it meant so much.”
Hughes said Labrador had been on her ‘to-do’ list for years, and she is grateful she had the chance to finally make it here.
“Labrador is an incredible place,” she said. “It’s adventurous, raw, rugged, with natural beauty and animals ... I am already planning how to get back here for another trip!”