Clara's time to shine

TURIN -- Enjoyed the Cindy Klassen-Anni Friesinger showdown the other day?

Well, pull up a chair and prepare for Canada vs. Germany, Part 2.

It's Winnipeg product Clara Hughes against Claudia Pechstein, the three-time defending gold medallist, head-to-head in the last pairing of today's 5,000-metre speed skating event, which gets underway at 9:30 a.m.

Like the Klassen-Friesinger matchup in Wednesday's 1,500, this one's got all kinds of history attached to it.

For the 36-year-old Pechstein to win four of these in a row would be precedent-setting.

A win by Hughes, 33, would add to a legacy that's already seen her become the first Olympian in history to win more than one medal at both the Summer and Winter Games.

Any other year, and Hughes would be one of the stars of the Canadian show.

Here, she's been skating in the long shadow thrown by Klassen, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

Hughes craves media attention the way a vegan craves a rare steak.

Actually, she doesn't hold it in disdain, she'd just rather someone else took it.

The presence of her quadruple-medal-winning teammate has meant she could go about her business relatively quietly.

It's hard to imagine anybody winning a history-making medal as quietly as Hughes did last week.

Her silver in the team pursuit event made it two medals in Winter Games (the other, a bronze in Salt Lake City), two in Summer (cycling, 1996).

Incredibly, that bit of history didn't get any play here.

Hughes' anonymity could suffer a blow today, though, as she tries to complete her own Drive for Five in the 5,000, the race she's been waiting for.

It could also be her last Olympic race, although she's not ruling out another run at 2010.

You'd best not count her out, because if there's one thing this redhead has, it's endurance.

"A gigantic engine," is how her coach, Arno Hoogveld, described Hughes in an interview with Sun Media yesterday. "Like the Energizer Bunny."

The batteries looked in need of re-charging when Hughes raced the 3,000 back on Day 2.

"I just felt like my legs weighed two tons," she said at the time. "I came out of that race and watched the video, and I looked horrible, basically. It was like skating in quicksand.

"I just have to calm down, and just totally mentally and physically prepare for the race of my life and the fight of my life on the 25th."

The 5,000 is a unique animal, presenting an entirely different fight than the shorter distances.

If the 1,000 is a furious, 75 seconds in a cage with a tiger, then the 5,000 is a wolf in the wild, one that will stalk you for a full seven minutes, wearing you down until you collapse.

What separates Hughes from the pack: her survival instinct.

"She has the capability to suffer," Hoogveld said. "When everybody else is falling off the pace ... when a race gets really tough, she just keeps going."

It's a toughness that's part mental and part physical, the product of years of endurance races on the bike.

Combined with the smarts Hughes has developed competing internationally all these years, and you've got one of the pre-race favourites.

"She has the true combination of a champion," Hoogveld said. "They're hard to find, I'll tell you that."

Perhaps the best part about Hughes is her Olympic spirit.

She simply basks in the whole experience, how it unites nations, erasing boundaries of religion, colour and language.

"The spirit, the sportsmanship during the Games ... she loves that kind of stuff," Hoogveld said.

Canadians should love this, too.

Running parallel to Hughes's story is that of Klassen, who'll attempt to add to her record of four medals at a single Olympics.

It's possible Hughes gets career medal No. 5, while Klassen grabs career No. 6.

The Canadian women have already had a one-two finish at the Oval Lingotto -- who's to say they can't do it again?

Claudia Pechstein, perhaps.

Contact Paul at pfriesen@wpgsun.com or 632-2788.