Canadian Cyclist


September 8/15 18:35 pm - Review: Open Heart, Open Mind by Clara Hughes

Posted by Editor on 09/8/15

Clara Hughes is likely one of the most well-known Canadians alive, these days. Winner of six Olympic medals across two sports - cycling and speed skating - she is the only person in history to have won multiple medals in both summer and winter Olympic sports. Clara is also known for speaking out on mental health issues, including her own struggles with depression.




This month, Clara released her autobiography - Open Heart, Open Mind. For many, it will be a darker read then they were expecting. Clara is brutally honest, starting with the difficult childhood she and her sister faced; with an alcoholic father and what comes across as an domestically abused mother.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that we have know Clara a long time - since she was 18 and started her racing career with the women's road team Tracy and I ran. We have known her ever since, and Clara is a friend. So, that clearly has some impact on my impressions of this book. One chapter (Chapter 15) contains reworked material from a travel article Clara wrote for us back in 2003.

Taking drugs and drinking at a young age, Clara was on a downward spiral when she saw Gaétan Boucher on TV, speed skating at the 1988 Olympics. In her words, "I watched, mesmerized, as he glided effortlessly, his body beautifully coordinated, his blades barely touching the ice ... I thought: I want to do that."

Her success is well documented and, to be honest, Clara doesn't spend a lot of time detailing most of her victories and podiums. Instead, she talks about how none of it could overcome feelings of lack of self worth and being overweight, black moods and depression, no matter how well she did.

In the cycling specific sections, Clara talks in great detail about her on-again, off-again relationship with long-time coach Mirek Mazur, outlining constant belittling and mental abuse. However, she also admits he made her push herself harder then anyone else to become the best she could be.

Another revelation has become a news story itself - that Hughes tested positive in 1994 at the Road Worlds for ephedrine. She says that she has no idea how it happened, insisting that she did not take anything. Hughes also says that the positive was kept quiet by the national federation and she accepted a three month off season suspension, on the advice of the few people in the know, including, presumably, national team director Pierre Hutsebaut.

The news that Clara Hughes tested positive for a banned substance will shock many; I know that it was the first time that I had heard about it, and I was pretty stunned when I read it. I have mixed feelings on the matter: any positive, especially by such a high profile athlete, is always cause for dismay. However, I do feel it needs to be kept in context - this was a difficult time in the testing world, with Canadian rowing star Silken Laumann getting a similar sanction a year later for pseudo-ephedrine, that she claimed came from a cold medication. The level of knowledge and support by sports bodies was a far cry from what it is now.

WADA, the CCES, the whereabouts and biological passport programs ... none of these were around (CCES began in 1995 and WADA in 1999). Hughes was a young athlete (22 years old), and was advised to accept the suspension, which she did.

When the Canadian federation issued a statement on the matter [see Cycling Canada Reacts to Clara Hughes Revelation of an Anti-Doping Rule Violation], the shockwaves spread around the world, and we started seeing and receiving comments about how Hughes is a cheater, taking Olympic spots away from other, more deserving (and presumably cleaner) athletes.

This is holier-than-thou moralizing, in my opinion. Hughes could have kept quiet about this and it likely would never of come out, but instead she chose to reveal it, unlike many other athletes (included some recent Canadians), who swore blind they were clean until their backs were against the wall. It was also the mandated sanction at the time, so she did her time, came back and has been heavily tested ever since, with no adverse findings.

Does it tarnish her image? Undoubtedly. Does it negate everything she has accomplished since? Of course not. Everyone will have to make their own decision on how they feel about this news.

The book is not all dark, particularly when Clara talks about meeting and building a relationship with Peter Guzmán, who would eventually become her husband. I would agree with Clara that Peter is a special person, and his calm strength certainly seems to have helped her come to terms with the depressions and pressures that she puts upon herself.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time going into all the personal travails Clara has faced and overcome - read the book for that. What I would like to say in conclusion is that this is a very brave book. For someone who is so in the public eye to open up so completely and honestly, exposing her weaknesses and struggles, is incredibly dangerous, given the fickleness of public opinion. It is exactly what I would expect of Clara Hughes.

Published by Simon and Schuster Canada
ISBN 978-1-4767-5698-1


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