Clara Hughes became a Canadian sports icon through her accomplishments in cycling and speed skating.
She's a six-time Olympic medalist, and the only Canadian to win a medal at both the Summer and the Winter Olympics.
Her fame as an athlete has translated to a new initiative: campaigning for mental health awareness. She wants everyone to understand that mental health is something that can affect anyone, as she had depression after she won two medals in cycling at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Other family members have suffered depression, too.
Hughes rolled into Carlyle on June 11 as part of Clara's Big Ride – her cross-country bicycle tour that started about three months. A large crowd greeted her at the Rusty Relic Museum in Carlyle; she spoke to people once she arrived, and allowed people to pose with her medals.
She was also presented with some momentous of the town from Mayor Don Shirley, who proclaimed June 11 as Clara Hughes Day.
The community raised $1,500 for mental health causes, with the Carlyle Lions Club contributing $1,000 and the local Chamber of Commerce adding $500.
“It is injecting local funds, and that is also what our ride is all about…make a difference in your own backyard, make a difference to somebody who might not have access to resources,” said Hughes.
Throughout the ride, Hughes said that if they are offered money for personal expenses, but they don’t take it. They encourage communities to fund local mental health causes.
She said she has had an amazing time travelling through Saskatchewan. Carlyle was her last stop in the province before she enters her home province of Manitoba.
“It’s just been such a joy to roll through the Prairies, and I always feel at home when it’s flat,” said Hughes. “We call it the thumbs up province because we get so many thumbs up from the cars.”
During her time in Moose Jaw, a quote from a teacher really stuck with her. The teacher said, “Don’t just tell your friend where they can go, you take them there and you make sure that they get help.”
“That’s one thing that really stuck with me because no one should struggle, no one should suffer in silence,” Hughes said. “And we just need to talk about it more because it’s something that affects every single one of us.”
She has also noticed the unity of the communities, and how they are able to fundraise and bring awareness for mental health.
“Every community we’ve been in, especially the prairies, it’s been such tight=knit communities,” Hughes said. “You’re with each other through the struggles through the joys.”
Hughes said that she enjoys visiting the different communities. She also said that she looks forward to the school visits, as she has already been to more than 80 schools.
She has also been very appreciative of the RCMP, as they have gone above and beyond to provide her with a guide, allowing her to maneuver around the traffic on the busy highways.
She tirelessly cycles more than 200 kilometres some days, but she also admires the nature that each province has to offer.
“We saw this duck that had the blue bill, and it was like the blue color of the sky; it was the most amazing thing. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” she said. “And I know I wasn’t seeing things because I saw three of them in different places.”
One animal that she hadn’t seen on her adventure thus far is a live moose, and she said that they will be watching for one on the rest of their trip.
There have been many memorable stops, too, such as her trip to a community in northern Labrador, which had a population of 600. She said that she had to fly in a small bush plane, travel to the town on a snowmobile, and went back to the airport by dog sled.
She also had a similar experience in Nain, Labrador.
“What they did was they brought out a Skidoo, and they had painted one of the sleds blue and bolted a bike to the sled and said ‘Clara would you want to ride to the hotel,’” she said. “All of the kids were running beside me and it was the most special moment out of the whole trip.”
She believes that she has succeeded in raising awareness for mental health, as every municipality has been talking about it and showing support.
“It’s definitely made us know that we are not alone and we’re supported on this ride … it just means a lot to those of us who are pedaling and we know that we’re not peddling alone,” Hughes said.
The main message that she wants to get across is “if you see someone struggling, just let them know that they’re not alone,” and that there are resources in every community for mental health.
Carlyle was the 207th community Hughes has visited in 90 days. Her cross-country tour is slated to end July 1 in Ottawa.