Canadian Cyclist


January 22/04 9:49 am - Freedom Denied: Clara Hughes Journal

Posted by Editoress on 01/22/04

Clara Hughes may no longer be competing as a cyclist, but her years as a cycling competitor have shaped her and continue to inspire her.

This is Clara's latest journal entry.

Freedom Denied
by Clara Hughes

For the past fourteen years, I have traveled the world with the maple leaf on my back, representing Canada in sport. As another international departure approaches, I begin to think of the span of time I will spend away from home, and realize with a sense of sadness how ordinary this travel has become. Racing for Canada is always special, but the time away from home makes it tough. In the early days of competing it was such a thrill. I had no ties and felt at home wherever I opened my suitcase. As the years passed and I began to go to the same events time and time again, this freshness wore off.

After ten years of bike racing I became so sick of France, nightmares of being trapped in the musty, smoky air of the Charles de Gaulle Airport left me gasping for air, relieved only upon the realization I was at home. The white food diet cyclists (white bread, white chicken, pork, pasta, rice, white cheese, plain white yogurt…) were fed made the French concept of gourmet as believable as the Loch Ness monster surfacing in Lake Ontario. The side of France that I knew was one of bad food, bitter coffee, and copious amounts of suffering through a glorious landscape I did not have the energy to take in.

When I returned to skating after ten years of cycling, it felt fresh again. New stamps were punched into my already ragged passport as the countries favoring winter sport were quite different. This lasted a couple of trips due mainly to where my life had progressed at that point. I was no longer the young, unattached athlete I once was. I was married and had found a home so beautiful in a peaceful environment that it hurts me each time I have to leave. My husband and I had settled in the quaint Eastern Townships of Quebec, which offered a culture and a landscape we both felt a deep attachment to. We finally had found home, only couldn't be there as much as we wanted. The pangs of homesickness grew stronger and stronger as I continued on this path, building to this day. Still, I love what I do, and would swim the width of an ocean to get to that starting line. It's just not always easy to be on the road.

However, as I sit and reflect on this travel, and think back to some of the experiences it has allowed, I realize how unique it has been. The opportunities have been incredible to the point of, at times, bizarre. So unique that I wonder if that was really me passing through all that has happened.

My first foray in the National Cycling Team jersey found me in Cuba. It was 1991, and the Pan American Games were held in Havana. Considering the history between the USA and Cuba, it was surprising the tropical island played host to the Games. I was entered in every endurance event, road and track, thrilled to travel and excited to compete against many of the girls from the USA that I had only seen in cycling magazines at that point in time.

When not racing or training my teammates and I would venture out of the village and watch different events. One particular evening we set out to the velodrome. The final for the men's 4000 m team pursuit was on and the USA faced the hometown, four-man team from Cuba. We heard rumors that Fidel Castro would attend and wanted to see, possibly more than the race itself, the infamous dictator in the flesh.

We found an open spot on the concrete steps making for public seating above the track. The hot, humid air was buzzing with energy. The place was packed to capacity; those not able to get in lined the barrier of chain-linked fence marking the boundary of the track where seating did not exist. They stood twenty deep, chanting CUBA-CUBA-CUBA. The track was on fire from the energy pumping out of the fans. People began to look over to the top of the track, rousing our curiosity. As we turned we saw the group of military men flanking a tall, poised man with a beard. It was Fidel, just as he looked in the magazines, on TV, and he was directly above us.

The starting pistol echoed in the damp, muggy air, triggering the start of the race and the roar of the Cuban fans. This was the 'people's games' and the patriot crowd danced and screamed, filled with passion and what seemed to be joy. Even Castro was on his feet, fists pumping, willing his young men to beat the Americans. It was more than a race; it was a statement of political power, however ridiculous that seemed to the rest of us (it was only a bike race!). One could see in the body language of the Cuban team on their out-dated Russian track bikes that victory was the only option.

Lap after lap the teams were flew around the concrete track at even speeds. Like a metronome, they crossed the line on virtually the same pace, as if set to the rhythm of each other. With one kilometer to go, the Cubans began to turn on a power and a will too strong for their opponents. It was as if the roar of the crowd, so intense at this point people in Miami must have thought a thunderstorm was rolling in from the distance, fed their very souls, propelling them around the track. With 400 m to go they had the other team in sight (starting on opposite sides of the track each team 'pursues' one another) and were certain of victory. The Americans knew this and gave one last effort, ultimately tearing themselves apart, finishing one by one, while the Cubans crossed the finish line, arms pumping, with tears streaming across their faces. They had succeeded for the people, in front of the feared dictator who had the power to make their lives comfortable as a result of this! success; miserable had the result been opposite. People around us cried, they danced, they sang out in joy.

Fidel made his way down to the track, flanked by military men, and approached his cyclists who had just beaten the Americans. Beaten them on the playing field of sport, motivating his people enough to forget, perhaps, for a moment the state of poverty most of them were forced to live in as a result of his regime. I felt like I was watching a documentary on the history channel, yet there I was, only 20 feet from Castro himself.

The crowds carrying the team of four on their shoulders lowered the young men to the track surface. Castro shook their hands as more tears of pride and joy streamed down their faces. Tinny music blared through the low-tech speakers high above the track, signifying the start of the medal presentation. The gold medals were presented first, Castro hanging the golden reward around the necks of the victors. He presented the silver medal of defeat; symbolic to Castro I'm sure, to the Americans.

As the Cuban flag raised high in the damp, dark sky, nationals around me wept, fists pumping high as the tinny rendition of their anthem came to an end. Castro made his way out, crowds cheering his name, waving stoically to his people.

We sat in awe, knowing this event was symbolic to the people surrounding me, feeling we were in another era so bizarre and foreign compared to the concept I had of sport. When examined closely it was not what it seemed, as most events of this nature are. That the Americans had sent their second-tier team (the best riders were in Germany preparing for the World Championships that same week) was insignificant. It was country against country, and with a Cuban victory, as far as Fidel was concerned, the island nation would rise victorious, defeating the mighty Americans. The small island prevailed and victory was Fidel's. I was aware of this facade, but the people around us seemed neither to know, or perhaps not to care.

I felt happy that they were happy, if for only a moment forgetting the dire straights they lived in, day in and day out. If for a moment forgetting about the rations they were forced to subside on leading up to the Games, during the Games, after the Games, all so food would be sent to the athlete's village, instead of their children's mouths. I felt badly for how much I had complained about the week prior: how bad the food was, how hard the beds were, how different it was than home. The people around me with so little had so much. They were stripped of material worth, things that we as Canadians have accumulated as a right, not a privilege. They had what money cannot buy. They had a dignity that shined through their poverty, and a spirit more beautiful than anything I had been exposed to at that point in my life.

When looking back at this experience, I realize how fortunate I am to be born in Canada and what a gift the opportunities that have been offered to me have been. The real freedom is that I've had the choice to make things happen. These are privileges not to be taken for granted. Representing Canada and not having to create such an illusion that I witnessed in Cuba is a freedom as well. It is not political power that I am trying to exude, but instead a feeling of hope that I strive to portray. Sport, for me, is the opportunity to show people, of all nations, what it is like to follow one's bliss in life; to have a dream and to have the courage to go after it with passion. Competing has allowed for moments, however fleeting they have been, in my life where I have felt the rapture of being alive as a human being; moments want the world to feel and be inspired by.

As I prepare for another trip overseas, this reflection has allowed me to revisit my motivations, and realize how precious this opportunity is. After fourteen years of being on the road, though it takes some reminding, and is often difficult for reasons already explained, I am beginning to feel excited to board that plane. You never know what waits to be experienced in the horizon.



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