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"I was, without exaggeration, a delinquent teenager," Clara Hughes says, in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where Canada's most decorated speed skater is attempting to make her sixth Olympic team. Though it might seem an unlikely path from a "delinquent teenager" to the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in both Winter and Summer Olympics, Hughes' story is filled with unlikely events.
Today, her delinquent days are decades behind her. But at 15, Hughes was struggling with teenage angst, drug use and a two-pack-a-day smoking habit. In fact, she was on her way out for yet another night on the town when a bit of channel surfing changed her story forever.
"I was passing time one afternoon, waiting to go party with my friends. I was flipping through the channels. It was 1988, and the Calgary Winter Olympics were on, and I saw speed skating. Something inside me connected to it. I had this sense of knowing inside, that this was what I'm going to do with my life. I'm going to be that one day. I just knew," Hughes says. She left the house with the image of speed skating carved into her thoughts and soon found her way to a rink in Winnipeg. "The impact of that one image of speed skating on TV really saved my life."
Sure enough, fast forward 22 years, and Hughes, now 38, has one of the most remarkable athletic resumes of all time. She won four medals in three Olympic medals, including three (one gold and two bronze) in the longest women's speed skating event, the 5000m. The biggest moment of her Olympic career may have come at the start of the Vancouver Games, when she was the flag-bearer leading the host nation into the Opening Ceremony.
But, even though her passion for skating started at 15, she didn't win her first medal on the ice until 30. Instead, she spent her 20's on the pavement -- winning medals in cycling's time trial and road race events in the Atlanta Games in 1996. So how does a speed skater get her first Olympic medals on wheels instead of blades? Another chance encounter, only this time not with a TV remote but a frozen spectator.
"I didn't actually seek out cycling," Hughes explains. "A cycling coach saw me out training on a -40-degree C day in Winnipeg, and he thought, 'If she's that tough, maybe she'll be a good cyclist.' He approached me and gave me the chance to go to a cycling training camp. I was the only girl that could keep up with the boys on the hills. I was only 17 and had been speed skating less than two years, but he told me if I hang up my skates for a few years, I could be the best cyclist in the world and wear the rainbow jersey [the jersey given to world champions]. I didn't know what a rainbow jersey was, but I said yeah, I'll give it a try. Cycling was really fun, and I thought, ok, I'll race my bike for a couple years. Well, it ended up being over 10 years."
Between 1991 and 2001, Hughes cycled her way to 18 Canadian national titles and two Olympic medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games. She just missed the rainbow jersey at the 1995 world championships, where she scored a silver in the time trial. In 2001 Hughes hung up the bike and returned to her first love, the ice -- winning medals in the 5,000m event in the next three Olympics. But in 2008, while commentating for the cycling events at the Beijing Summer Olympics, Hughes decided she wasn't finished with the bike just yet.
"I was preparing in speed skating for the 2010 Vancouver Games, but as I watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I just had this feeling that I could be out there cycling again ... not just that I could do it, but that I wanted to do it. By August 2010, I knew. The feeling of 'Maybe cycling is a possibility again' didn't turn to dread when I considered the hours of training and focus. It turned to absolute desire. And I knew I had to try for 2012."
When Hughes "knows" things, it's a good indication her competition should start worrying. She kept up with her skating long enough to take bronze in Vancouver, and now she's planning a comeback for the 2012 London Summer Olympics, where her focus will be the dominating the road race, time trial and individual pursuit track cycling event. And she's more determined than ever. Hughes doesn't shirk the physical demands of training, but it's her mental ability to believe in herself and execute a perfect performance that athletes covet most.
"Coming back to the bike is so incredibly difficult, but power is power, and it is all about how much you can suffer. What I have to train most is my brain, and to get to that point of maintaining focus is the most difficult thing," Hughes says. "But I have an ability to focus my energy on races that count the most. I can bring it on. I believe at a cellular level that I can win."
For more on Clara Hughes, her athletic career and her recent appointment as Canada's spokesperson for Let's Talk, a national mental health campaign, visit www.clara-hughes.com.