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Winning at the game of life

Hughes in hometown to champion mental-health issues

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Clara Hughes leaves Brandon University with her riding team on Day 92 of Clara's Big Ride.

MEGAN LANE / BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

Clara Hughes leaves Brandon University with her riding team on Day 92 of Clara's Big Ride.

Rain and a storm couldn't deter people from seeing their hometown idol as six-time Olympic medallist Clara Hughes rode into Winnipeg on Saturday as part of her campaign to raise awareness about mental-health issues.

Despite pelting rain and occasional lightning, more than 50 people showed up at Clara Hughes Recreation Park, named after Hughes last year. Hughes hails from the Elmwood neighbourhood in which the park is located. Over the last 93 days, she has been riding her bike across Canada to visit communities and talk about mental-health issues. The tour, called Clara's Big Ride and sponsored by Bell Canada, has been more important to her in many ways than her Olympic achievements, she said.

"This ride has more meaning than anything and everything I did in sport combined, because I have felt through the 93 days that it has been connecting people through the struggle," she said.

The rain and storm were a fitting metaphor for mental-health struggles, of which Hughes has faced her share, she said. "It just won't stop, and you're waiting for the sky to part and the sun to shine," she said, as people were bracing against wind and rain that had an hour earlier picked up the tent under which Hughes was speaking.

That people showed up despite the weather meant a lot to Hughes, and she thanked the crowd several times.

"It shows that people care, and it's not about me. This ride is not about me, it is about every single person who struggles, and every person who can't get the help they need because they can't ask," she said.

Hughes was joined by her former speedskating teammate Christine Nesbitt, who for the first time opened up about her own struggles with depression. Nesbitt said after going through a bad breakup and dealing with the challenges of being a professional athlete, she spent two years crying almost every day.

"The only thing that kept me going was sport. The only thing I could do for myself was to show up to training and work hard, and even if we had two minutes of rest in between intervals, I would be crying in those two minutes," Nesbitt said.

The stigma of mental illness prevented Nesbitt from reaching out for help, she said. When asked about how hard it was to open up, she started tearing up.

"My struggle was a couple of years ago, and it's still something I'm working through, but I'm strong enough to share it. It was the right time," she said through tears.

Sandra Mirecki was one of the people who braved the weather to hear Hughes talk. She said the issue of mental health and seeing a hometown idol was important enough for her to come out.

"It's important, so you come, and I think we're a lot more comfortable than she has been through a lot of her bike journey," Mirecki said.

Mirecki said she also has seen people around her struggle with mental-health problems, which drove her to volunteer for a crisis line. Having a public person like Hughes champion the cause will go a long way to further it, she said.

"It's just amazingly good. She's a known person, and people can relate to someone they've known or seen before," she said.

Hughes will continue her journey through the region, resting up today and then continuing to Kenora Monday. She talked about the Prairie wind, which all Manitoba cyclists know well as both an enemy when it's your headwind and a helper when it's at your back. When she was a young cyclist, Hughes said she would sometimes face the Prairie headwind and try to make it from one grain elevator to the next. Mental health, Hughes said, works in much the same way.

"I remember thinking, 'I'll never get to that grain elevator,' and then eventually you get there and get to (turn around and) have the wind at your back," she said.

oliver.sachgau@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2014 A3

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