Clara’s Big Gala: Summerside gives warm welcome to Olympian

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By Maddie Keenlyside/JOURNAL PIONEER  
At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, the Clara’s Big Ride Gala opened its doors at the Royal Canadian Legion in Summerside. At $75 a ticket, the turnout of almost 200 meant a big win for the Canadian Mental Health Association of P.E.I.

Clara Hughes, 41, is currently 3,354 km into her tour to promote mental health. The Olympic cyclist and speedskater is cycling across Canada through all weather conditions to raise awareness and fundraise for mental health issues.

Clara Hughes, a dual-athlete, Olympic champion, and mental health advocate, entered to a standing ovation.

"I know this town is no stranger to the dual sport thing. You have a redhead here who is kind of incredible, a superwoman, Heather Moyse. She's amazing."

Over the course of her cross-country fundraising cycle, she said she has encountered some unusual elements.

"We rolled all across southern Ontario, into Quebec, through northern Quebec. It's still winter in all of those places, minus double digits. I'm from Winnipeg, I don't ride my bike when it's minus double digits, so this whole ride has been a slew of firsts," she laughed.

They rolled through winds, blizzards and snow-covered roads, sometimes getting blown across them, she said.

"We just put our heads down and kept putting one pedal in front of the other."

Now 3,354 km into the Big Ride, Hughes and her riding partners have 8,649 km left with 82 days to go. And she is grateful to her athletic and Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Campaign crew, she said. 

"You don't do anything alone. I think everyone in this room understands that. This riding, I definitely haven't done alone."

Clara's Big Ride was a dream conceived after the 2012 Olympics.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Hughes was born into a troubled family.

"For me, my mental health story goes back to being born. I was born into a family of dysfunction, substance abuse, volatility. I remember being five years old and crying my eyes out because I couldn't stop the yelling and screaming, night after night after night, and thinking it was my fault."

Hughes, along with her sister, were only in middle school when they began to follow in their father's footsteps of alcohol and substance abuse.

"From when I was 13 to 16 years old, I did those things. By the time I was 16, I stopped going to school because I wanted to be on the streets. I wanted to be anywhere but in school or at home, and I wanted to be high and drunk to numb the pain on the inside."

When she was 16, she got really lucky, Hughes said. She saw something that changed her life.

"It was Olympic sport. I saw Gaetan Boucher skate, his last time for Canada. He was a defending Olympic champion. I'm sure so many people in this audience can remember the fire in that guy's eyes."

"He was so much smaller than everyone else, but his heart was so big and his determination and intensity."

Hughes said she remembered just watching him, transfixed by the back and the forth motion, the glide and physical elegance of speedskating.

"It was like music, dance, a poetry in motion. That day I found my outlet, my way of painting a beautiful picture. I didn't know how, why, when or even what, but I knew someday I was going to skate for Canada."

"I saw someone pour themselves into something so beautifully that I connected to it. It got me back to school, got me off drugs, got me off alcohol."

Skating put her back on a path she didn't even know existed.

"I thought having something to pour myself into was going to fix and fill that void that was still growing inside of me."

She started winning races, and the more she won, the worse she felt about herself. A negative coach didn't help, either.

"That void kept opening and opening until I felt like I had a Grand Canyon inside."

Bringing home her first Olympic medals at the age of 23 didn't do much to help fill that void or change her overall situation, she said.

"Two months after winning those medals, I was in bed crying all day, not able to get up and not able to ride my bike."

As she gained weight and became self-conscious, she started to fear letting others down.

"Everyone expected me to be that Olympic medalist."

After two years, she finally accepted she needed the help of others.

"I looked at those medals again and realized that even though they represented so much struggle, they were as much a part of me as the joy I would grow into when I had the chance to go back to the ice."

In 2010, the biggest opportunity in her life - bigger than winning an Olympic medal - was having the chance to get involved with Bell Canada's "Let's Talk" campaign.

"I just said, 'Can I do anything, with this?' Because it's not only my story, it is my family's story.”

Bell Let’s Talk is a campaign aiming to improve the lives of people suffering from mental illness and reduce the stigma.

Former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page also spoke on behalf of Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign.

“Clara’s a true Canadian hero, and it’s a thrill to share a stage with her,” Page said.

In 2008, the year after his first marriage dissolved, he took his kids to Canada’s Wonderland.

“Everything I do with my kids has to be perfect now, or else I’ll never see them again,” he recalled thinking.

Page said his mind would fill with racing, painful thoughts, and he worried about disappointing everyone and ending up alone.

“It was what I called my sick brain. My brain starts eating itself.”

As early as the age of six, Page had figured out his suicide.

“I knew exactly which knife, from which drawer.”

Abusing drugs became a way to manage his mental illness, something he has had to get help for. From the outside, people don’t always understand the reality of mental illness, he said.

“It’s not always about triggers. Attacks can come out of nowhere, until you’re forced to stay in bed, or have uncharacteristic temper tantrums, scaring loved ones.”

Sometimes people can’t see past the exterior – a person’s success, or apparent happiness – to the depression underneath, he said.

Finding the right counsellor was difficult, but he knew he had to work on himself, not blaming others.

“I gotta work on this part,” he said, patting his heart.

Page performed a few songs, one from his latest solo album about the terror of a new beginning, but also the possibility that comes with it.

“I’d rather be at sea than alone,” he crooned.

People can sometimes romanticize mental illness with archetypes like the tortured artist, he said.

“You don’t need to be ill to be an artist. Health – spiritual, mental, physical – is what we all need to strive for.”

It’s important to have people in your life who can see the things you don’t want to see in yourself, he said.

“It’s a hard thing to battle your own brain.”

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five people have mental health issues in Canada.

Organizations: Bell Canada, Big Ride, Barenaked Ladies Canadian Mental Health Association

Geographic location: Canada, Southern Ontario, Quebec Northern Quebec Winnipeg Grand Canyon

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