Open Heart, Open Mind, by Clara Hughes

Nine stars

Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes offers readers a look at the woman behind the name, digging deeper than the strength and determination for which she was so well known. In this quasi-autobiography/memoir, Hughes offers a glimpse into her life as an elite athlete as well as the struggles she faced throughout her career. Growing up in Winnipeg, Hughes faced a number of obstacles at an early age, including an alcoholic father whose love was offset with a broken household. From this, Hughes drifted into a childhood filled with gang associations, drugs, and booze, a life that could have spiralled into despair. It was only when she caught a speed skating race from the Calgary Olympics in 1988 that Hughes became enthralled by a new possibility, a life as an athlete. Training for a few years, Hughes was able to find her passion at the speed skating oval and left the instability of her current life behind. She found herself intoxicated with the regimented life of skating and the power of the blade, where she could escape her home life, her parents now formally separated. However, this passion with speed skating soon morphed into a love of cycling, which became Hughes’ new focus. She took up competitive cycling and made a name for herself, competing at the highest levels. With this intense training came a coach whose unorthodox style pushed Hughes past her limits and into a life of self-doubt. Mockery and bullying may have pushed Hughes to strive further, but also left her hating herself and doubting the love others had to offer. The passion Hughes found on her bicycle led her to qualifying and winning a bronze at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. While she became a praised Olympian, Hughes began to develop (or rediscover) some painful issues that resulted in severe bouts of depression, masked behind that cutthroat training regimen that left little time for reflection. While she continued to excel in the cycling world, her exterior self became a facade, as Hughes recounts through poignant chapters hinting at dark demons dwelling deep inside her. When she met her future husband, Peter, Hughes found someone with whom she could relate; another person whose carefree nature and drive to excel led to numerous exploratory adventures. While separated a great deal, Hughes was able to foster a relationship with Peter, fuelled, perhaps, by their time apart. After a decade of cycling and much success on the podium, Hughes could no longer fathom the gruelling life of countless injuries. This caused her to rediscover her passion for speed skating, and a coaching approach based more on respect than attack. With a coach who respected her dedication to success, Hughes was able to focus her attention on what she felt mattered, while still using training to mask her other issues. Hughes excelled on the oval and brought more medals home, the first Canadian to medal in both Summer and Winter Olympic Games. However, with such fame comes a requirement to do something with it. Hughes sought to advocate for those less fortunate, heading to Africa to advocate for sport as play. Her passion to bring sport to all corners of the earth seeps out through the narrative and brings the reader closer to understanding the importance of sport outside of competing. Coming full circle, Hughes addresses the pains of her personal struggles with depression and masking the agony of her youth through excessive training when she had to hang up her skates (and bike) and lived in a permanent state of retirement. The reader is able to better understand the Hughes the cameras did not capture and the pains that this elite athlete faced, putting more of an ‘everyday person’ spin on her life. By finding herself, both immersed in and away from sports, Hughes offers the reader a raw insight into the struggles elite athletes face away from the field/track/oval. A must-read for anyone who wants to be touched as they learn about the wonders of Olympic athleticism.

Hughes pulls no punches in this book, allowing the reader to see behind the proverbial curtain. Hughes takes the time to focus on the training regimen she undertook in preparation for her numerous Olympic Games, as well as event-day preparation. Offsetting this with the struggles between the Games and the limitations that training offers to mask the struggles inside the mind or body, Hughes found herself pushed in directions she could not have forecast. Never forgetting her roots in Winnipeg, but refusing to use that as a crutch, Hughes exemplifies how hard work and determination can sometimes pay off, though it is not a certainty for Olympic glory. I found myself curious as to how Hughes could have been an Olympic caliber athlete in two sports that differed greatly, though the narrative explores this and shows the reader how she could master both sports at different points in her life. It is surely an amazing story, which flows through well-constructed chapters, offering just enough to sate the curiosity of readers. Hughes does not shy away from the abuse she faced, in many forms, throughout her life, though she did not feel strong enough to overcome it until later and with the help of many. Clara Hughes is not perfect, though perhaps that is the point of this book. This personal story is powerfully presented with a personal flavour that shows the larger picture of an Olympian who seeks not to be a god, but an ambassador of determination and hard work. If the reader takes but one thing from this book, it should be that no struggle is insurmountable. 

Kudos, Madam Hughes for this insightful story that passes the realm of simple biography or memoir and digs much deeper to show how even more biggest stars can live lives with flaws.