Clara Hughes is a fighter. As the only athlete ever to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, she’s shown that she can tackle any physical challenge she puts her mind to. And as a mental health spokesperson and advocate in Canada, she’s used her own experience fighting the challenges and stigma of depression to help inspire others and bring mental illness out of the shadows.

Starting on March 14, Clara will combine her physical and mental toughness as she kicks off Clara’s Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk. She’ll ride 12,000 kilometres across Canada, stopping in 95 communities over 110 days to take the conversation about mental illness across the country. Along the way, she’ll share her story with students at more than 100 schools and participate in community events meant to create awareness and raise funds for mental health organizations.

Clara has been working with the Bell Let’s Talk Campaign, which aims to end the stigma of mental illness, since its inception in 2010.

“Quite honestly, my most important work began [then],” Clara told reporters when she announced the Big Ride. “I had this opportunity to share an experience in a time in my athletic life that I thought no one would want to hear about. I had the chance through Let’s Talk to share my experience of having gone through depression as a young athlete… Sharing that story allowed me to share the struggle. It allowed me to share that as well as all of the years and moments of joy I had the chance to share through my athletic endeavours.”

Since its inception, the campaign’s main event has been Let’s Talk Day, a day on which Canadians are encouraged to talk about mental health using social media. So far, Bell has committed $62.5 million to mental health initiatives in Canada through Let’s Talk, but the campaign’s more important contribution may be that it gets people to engage in a supportive dialogue about what can often be a very isolating experience.

“We all have family members, friends or colleagues who will experience mental illness or we may struggle ourselves, as I have – yet most people impacted still won’t seek support because they fear admitting they need help,” Clara said. “By talking openly and supportively about mental illness, we can all help break the stigma and improve Canadian mental health.”

The idea to take the campaign out of the virtual world and onto the roads of Canada with a cross-country ride came to Clara while hiking in the mountains with her husband, Peter Guzman.

“I felt a sense of clarity and feeling that beautiful movement that allowed me to transcend confusion,” Clara said. “I just felt like I wished I could share this with other Canadians –  share this idea that I always say, that movement is indeed my medicine.”

And an effective medicine it’s been. As a young teenager, Clara was headed down a dangerous road. She was using drugs and alcohol by the age of 12. She was much more interested in partying than completing high school, so she dropped out. That all changed when a night of channel flipping as a bored 16-year-old led her to catch television coverage of speed skater Gaetan Boucher racing in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. She’s described that first glimpse of speed skating as love at first sight –  a love that changed her entire life story.

Here’s the interesting thing about that moment: Boucher didn’t win that race. He didn’t even medal. He was struck by severe leg cramps and finished in ninth place. What inspired Clara was that he finished the race at all, given his obvious pain. Between that determination and the way the skaters seemed to fly on the ice, she was hooked. She got herself back in school and did everything she could to put herself on the path to the Olympics.

It was a path that would see her become one of the most decorated athletes in Canadian Olympic history. (She’s tied at six medals with fellow speed skater Cindy Klassen.) She competed in three Summer and three Winter Olympic Games, winning four medals in speed skating and two in cycling, and was the Canadian flag bearer at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

But there were some bumps along the way. Near the start of her Olympic career, Clara was diagnosed with clinical depression. It was startling for a young athlete who thought she could push herself through anything to admit she needed help, but diagnosis and advice from a national team doctor led her to pursue therapy.
Her personal connection to mental illness –  which affects one in five Canadians at some point in their lives –  and her firsthand knowledge of the power of sport have led her to pursue humanitarian projects close to her heart. She’s used the high profile gained from her years in the public eye to bring attention to the importance of sport and play through her work with Right to Play and other organizations supporting youth sport. And she’s put her money where her mouth is, donating $10,000 of her personal savings to Right to Play and her $10,000  bronze medal bonus from the 2010 Olympics to Take a Hike, a Vancouver-based organization that works with troubled youth. In recognition of her humanitarian work she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2010.

When Clara’s Big Ride ends July 1 in Ottawa, she’ll have completed a very long journey to achieve both highly public and deeply personal goals. It’s a season of very hard work that she’s not taking lightly.

“This is actually the most important work I will do in my life,” Clara said. “I am so grateful to have the chance to give the voice to Canadians from coast to coast to coast to shout it out loud and clear that this is an issue that affects every single one of us.”

For more information about Clara’s Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk, visit Bell.ca/ClarasBigRide.

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