SUMMERSIDE – Clara Hughes has won six Olympic gold medals over her career, but beneath her success, the athlete has suffered from an invisible struggle.
The 41-year-old with the dazzling athletic career is crossing the country on her bicycle to raise awareness and funds to fight mental illness.
On March 26, she arrived at Queen of Angels Academy in Quebec. Hughes told her story about growing up in Winnipeg, says the school’s Arlene Blumer.
Hughes’ father was an alcoholic and he used to beat her mother, she said.
“As a five-year-old girl, she used to hide in the closet and cry.”
When Hughes was nine, her parents got divorced.
“That was kind of liberating for her and her sister, but obviously these things impact you in life.”
Later, as a troubled teenager, the future athlete coped by becoming obsessed with the Olympics. She was successful, but got involved to an unhealthy degree, something that caused its own problems.
“She came back one year from the Olympics with her medals, and you know how after you’ve hit a real high you kind of hit the ground? She couldn’t get out of bed.”
It’s real eye-opener to think that someone who is in the spotlight, an active, outstanding, Olympic star, could be plagued with such problems, Blumer said.
“By telling students her story, and how she identified that she had a problem, [she talks] about how this is something that’s not embarrassing, and it should be addressed. If not, it causes a lot of problems as you get older.”
Blumer said she captivated the whole audience, students and adults alike.
“Everybody was in awe of Clara, the way she had command of the room, and just how she talked from the heart, with full energy. She’s an amazing woman.”
In a way, her expedition is doing for mental illness what Terry Fox did for cancer.
“But unfortunately with Terry’s plight, you saw that he had one leg. You saw physical damage. Here it’s internal damage. As a consumer you watch on TV and think oh, look at her bike, look at her skates, but don’t think about the inner side of the person and how these things impact her.”
When she came to Queen of Angels, it was her third appearance of the day.
“She was physically drained, but every time she presents she puts a lot of energy into it. You feel her power in the way she talks.”
On April 11, a welcome event will be held at 4:15 p.m. Atlantic Superstore on 535 Granville Street in Summerside as Hughes arrives.
Then, on April 12, the Boys and Girls Club of Summerside will host an event called “Our Big Morning,” from 8 to 9:30 a.m. The event will take place at 364 Notre Dame St., said youth program director Angela Arsenault.
“We’ve put out our invitation to all youth. The first 60 registered youth, aged 13 to 19, are going to qualify [for a chance] to win a $1,000 bursary.”
In order to qualify for the bursary, students have to answer an essay question – in 500 words or less, to describe how they believe mental illness affects youth in Summerside, she said.
“ We’re trying to get their perspective on not just themselves, but all youth. With the help of a member of Clare’s team, we have a panel that’s going to read every application, and we’re going to narrow it down to one. ”
Hughes will also be speaking at the Canadian Mental Health Gala in Summerside at 340 Notre Dame St. on April 11, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., said Nicole MacLeod of the CMHA.
“Clara will be speaking at the event, and Steven Page, the former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies will be speaking and performing a few songs.”
All the funds raised at the gala will be for the Canadian Mental Health Association in Prince Edward Island, she said.
“So all the money that we raise is used to support people and their families that are living with mental illness on P.E.I.”
For tickets to the gala, people can either call 902-566-3034 or order online from www.cmhagala.com.