Clara Hughes

Clara Hughes is a six time Olympic medalist in speedskating and cycling, and is the only athlete in history to win multiple medals in the Summer and Winter games. But on top of being a renowned athlete, Clara is an incredible advocate for mental health issues. She is the spokesperson for Bell's Canadian mental health initiative Bell Let's Talk and speaks openly about her struggles with depression. She recently traveled across Canada on her bike to raise awareness and funds for mental health issues. Along the way, she stopped to give speeches and interviews about her experiences at multiple events, one of them being for high school students in London last March, where they had the chance to hear Clara speak and talk about what they can do to bring awareness around mental health to their schools.
 
While we didn't have the chance to interview Clara in person, I'm so happy she had the opportunity to answer our questions. She is such an amazing person and has so many great words and ideas to share with everyone. It was inspiring to hear her speak to students from all corners of the city, in hopes that they will carry those thoughts and ideas back to their schools to reduce stigma and promote student wellness.

Questions by

mindyourmind Youth Projects Assistant, Taylor.

You are an amazing athlete, winning medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics and biking across Canada with the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, to raise awareness around mental health issues. When did you realize you wanted to be a professional athlete?

When I saw the Olympics on TV.  I was 16 years old and saw Gaetan Boucher skate his last race for Canada.  I had no connection to the olympics but seeing Gaetan and the incredible fire in his eyes, and the beautiful movement of speedskating, suddenly made the Olympics interesting to me.  I had no desire to be ‘professional’ I just wanted to skate for Canada at the Olympics.

How has being an athlete changed or shaped who you are as a person?

It gave me a set of rules to live by, a code of conduct I guess you could say.  It gave me something good to pour myself into.  I got into a  lot of trouble as a teenager and finally found something positive to do instead of drinking, drugs and boredom.

Being as busy as you are must get stressful at times. A lot of youth find themselves overwhelmed with school work, sports and their involvement within the community. How do you find time for yourself and how do you prevent burnout?

I realize I have a capacity and cannot do everything.  My Mom always made me finish what I started growing up and if I didn’t want to sign up again, then I could make that choice.  So I always think of things in terms of ‘finishing what I start’ and look at a broad perspective of all the things I think I want to do, together on a calendar, then try to make better decisions this way.  I respect I have a capacity that is not limitless and realize if I say yes to every great thing out there I will be no good to everything including myself.  When I feel burnt out as I do right now, I step away and make sure I give myself the time to recover.  This is the most difficult thing for me, being idle, feeling like I am not accomplishing anything.  Resting and recovering and just simply doing little things like reading and chilling out is just as important and crucial to doing anything that may seem like a big accomplishment.

You’ve been quoted as saying, "Success means more than earning medals. It means having a voice and using the opportunity to reach out and help others." A lot of young people find it hard to help out their friends struggling with mental health issues. How would you help with a friend you thought was struggling?

Just listening is a big deal.  I get a lot of notes and messages asking for help.  I always tell people that half the time I don’t know what to do with myself, let alone giving advice to someone else.  But I can let them know their voice is heard and encourage them to find the support in their community.  I work with a psychologist and this individual is crucial for me to live and cope with the difficult emotions I go through that at times feel overwhelming.  Letting someone feel their voice is heard is important but knowing you cannot cure someone or fix or rescue them is important, too.  You need to be able to steer people in the direction of support that is available as well as listening.

Your story is known not only nationally, but internationally as well. What inspired you to talk about your journey with mental health?

Just an opportunity to share the struggle.  For years I shared the joy as an athlete and realized people thought it was easy all the time for me.  I thought if they could understand some of my struggle, perhaps this would help a person thinking and feeling they were isolated in these inner feelings, in the illness they have.  I also have a family history of mental illness with my sister and father, to I wanted to speak for the system that has amazing people working in it, but is underfunded and broken in many ways.  We need to have better support and care and funding in Canada.  We need this around the world.

In sharing your personal struggle with depression, you've inspired so many people to get help. What originally gave you the courage to get help?

I didn’t have the courage to get help.  I was in denial thinking if I admitted something was wrong I would end up as sick as my dad or my sister.  I lost 2 years of my competitive life to depression and it took a long time to figure things out.  I had people around who cared and supported me because I was an athlete who could win, and was lucky to be in this position.  Most people are not in this position.

In a previous interview, you said you believe this is the generation that can eliminate stigma when it comes to mental illness. What advice would you give to a young person that wanted to kick start mental health awareness in their community?

Just do it.  Do anything.  Be creative and let things unfold.  You will be surprised at what you do. 

Being involved in as many different sports as you are – do you have one sport or physical activity that is your favourite?

I love hiking and running.  Particularly trail running. I love being in nature. I never have earphones in because this is my time to really connect with myself.  I love the simplicity of it.

Our Canadian winter this year seemed extra long and cold! How did you find biking in it for hundreds of kilometres? What kept you going?

It was epic beyond belief.  I knew clearly if I quit or didn’t ride I would have to say this to the community I went to and the school I visited before I left.  This was not an option.  I felt like the struggle we had with the weather was a parallel to the struggle of mental illness and the stigma attached.  It was an unknown, agonizing at times, situation riding in the cold, often it seemed like it would never get warm.  But eventually it did and because we never gave up, there was a certain satisfaction in having persevered.  Quitting is simply not an example I am willing to set.

Do you have any words that you live by?

Follow your bliss.