By JACK TODD, SPECIAL TO THE GAZETTE
July 30, 2012 8:42 AM
MONTREAL - I don’t know if Clara Hughes saw Elvis yesterday. Maybe he was out for a stroll among the hedgerows in rainy England, or waiting in the crowds in central London.
I do know that if the legs and lungs and, above all, the enormous heart of Clara Hughes came into play, that she would have done everything in her power to push her body to that point of transcendent exhaustion which she describes with a simple phrase: “Ride until you see Elvis.”
It wasn’t Clara’s day. It would have been a wonderful way to finish an unparallelled career, winning a medal in the women’s road race in London, but it wasn’t to be. She finished back in the peloton, 32nd overall, behind her Canadian teammates, Joëlle Numainville and Denise Ramsden, 32 seconds behind the winner, the powerful Marianne Vos of the Netherlands.
For Hughes, who will turn 40 in September, just being in the race was remarkable, after she “retired” from Olympic competition after winning two medals in speed-skating in Vancouver. Except that Hughes would never be content simply to put in an appearance. When she announced that she was going back to cycling, you knew that she would do everything in her power to get to that podium.
Hughes has one more shot at a medal in the time trial this week — but no matter what she does, her unparalleled career as a cyclist and speedskater will remain the benchmark by which others are measured.
In the 16 years since she won her first Olympic medal (in cycling, amid the heat and chaos of Atlanta) Hughes has no doubt seen Elvis in every guise. Young Elvis. Old Elvis. The lean, leather-clad, acoustic Elvis (a surprisingly good guitar player) in that comeback concert. Blue Suede Shoes and In the Ghetto. Hound Dog and Love Me Tender.
It’s like that when your idea of the way to relax after a strenuous Olympics is to ride over the Sierra Madre or to bike through the Northwest Territories. You get to know things about yourself that most of us, bound to our couches and our remotes, never dream of.
A few weeks after Hughes won her famous speed-skating gold medal in the 5,000 metres in Torino, I received a postcard from Arizona. Hughes and her soulmate, Peter Guzman, were biking through the southwest. It was great, but they had been caught in a thunderstorm while sleeping outdoors and spent a wet, miserable night.
I remember thinking at the time: “Sheesh! You’re a gold medallist, Clara! Stay in a motel!”
But if she did, she wouldn’t be Clara Hughes. I wouldn’t want to predict where Hughes will go from here. No doubt she will go on leading the fight for all her various causes, including Right to Play and the fight to better understand depression.
She might bike around the world with Guzman. I wouldn’t be shocked (no matter what she’s saying now) if she’s back for the next Winter Olympics, in Sochi in 2014. Whatever she does, she’ll do it with her heart and soul, living by her motto: “Ride until you see Elvis.”
Good athletes are a dime a dozen. Great athletes? Any sports fan could real off the names of dozens. But great athletes who are also great people, who remain humble, never stop trying to help others and always set higher challenges for themselves?
They’re as rare as individuals who can win multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Olympics. As rare as Clara Hughes.
Another one for the ages: I first met Émilie Heymans after she won a silver medal while partnered with Anne Montminy in the synchro event in Sydney.
The impression of Heymans then was of a quiet, painfully shy young woman who was more than happy to let the articulate, charismatic Montminy do the talking for both of them.
After that, I would occasionally see Heymans at the South Shore gym where we both worked out. We talked occasionally, but her shyness was still there. But when she switched coaches after a poor performance at the World Aquatics Championships here in 2005, we talked for an hour on a bench out at Parc Jean-Drapeau. She was a different woman: confident, articulate, determined.
Seven years later, she reigns at the only Canadian athlete to win medals at four consecutive Olympics, after taking a bronze with Jennifer Abel in London Sunday.
In many ways, Heymans has been the opposite of Hughes, remaining out of the spotlight. But like Hughes, she has compiled a record that demands everything of an athlete, to remain among the world’s best at one Olympiad after another, through all the difficulties amateur athletes have to endure.
Like Hughes also, she will go into the pantheon as a truly special athlete.
Here’s one to contemplate: When 16-year-old Ye Shiwen of China smashed the world record in the women’s 400-metre individual medley by more than a second Saturday, she swam her last 50 metres in a faster time than the men’s 400 IM champion Ryan Lochte swam his last 50 meters. …
Heroes: Clara Hughes, Émilie Heymans, Jennifer Abel, Melissa Tancredi, Christine Sinclair, Yannick Agnel, Brandon London, Brandon Whitaker, Im Dong-Hyun, Canada’s rowers and gymnasts, &&&& last but not least, the French 4x100 relay team.
Zeros: Mitt Romney, Alexandr Vinokourov, Jeffrey Loria, David Samson, Claude Brochu, Pierre Gauthier, Dustin Byfuglien, Scott Howson, Khalif Mitchell, Jay Onrait &&&& last but not least, Hope Solo – who obviously hasn’t learned a thing after all these years.
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