February 26, 2006
Clara, Cindy sing from the heart
Two superwomen belt out O Canada
STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

TURIN -- This is the sustaining portrait we should stop and freeze from the Olympic Games of Turin.

There were Cindy Klassen and Clara Hughes, arms around each other, standing together on the gold medal podium, belting out an off-key version of O Canada, their bright smiles lighting up this Winter Olympic night.

This is a picture we should remember forever.

A stop action of two monumental Canadian Olympians, maybe the greatest we've ever known for reasons so completely different.

Here were the girls of Winnipeg: Hughes, the quintessential Olympian, wearing her first gold medal, her fifth Olympic medal, three from Winter, two from Summer. Nobody has ever done that before.

And there was Klassen, with her record fifth medal of these games -- one gold, two silvers, and now, after yesterday, two are bronze. Had Klassen been a country all her own, she would have finished 15th in the medal standings, ahead of Great Britain, Japan and the Czech Republic, just to name three.

And don't forget her 3,000-metre bronze medal at Salt Lake City four years ago.

"She gave me a hug. I gave her a hug," Klassen said. "To hear them play We are the Champions with her skating around the ice, it was such a special moment for me, a great moment for Canadians."

The Klassen Olympic story has been wondrous and awe-inspiring from beginning to end. Five races, five medals.

The story of Clara Hughes just gets better with age and each passing Games. She should be the national poster-girl for sport in our country. Hers is a voice that needs to be heard.

TIRED TEARS OF JOY

And at the conclusion of the 5,000-metre speed skating event yesterday at Oval Lingotto, which is part race and part death, Hughes crossed the finish line, collapsed from exhaustion, laying face first in the infield, and finally, when she got her composure, began to weep.

"I just started crying, like tears of joy," she said. "I can't believe I won the Olympics. It was like, so many emotions. My coach is from China (Xiuli Wang) and she's very proper and she's saying 'Clara, get up, get up, you're the champion, don't lie on the ground.' I said, 'Xiuli, I'm going to die.'"

The ending concluded an already remarkable day for 33-year-old Hughes.

In the morning, trying to kill time before her race, she turned on her television and watched a documentary on the Right To Play movement on CBC.

"I've been thinking all week about the meaning of sport ... what motivates me and why I love to compete," she said. "When I saw those kids -- I think they were in Uganda -- I saw those kids smiling and saw that happiness. And I thought, you know, this is what it's all about."

Right after that, she took out a pen and wrote three letters across the third knuckle of her left hand: J-O-Y.

"I wanted to remember why I do this. I thought, this is clear. Do this for the right reasons."

But even that wasn't all. Before her race began, just before the final pairing lined up, before she looked down at her left hand, she looked in the crowd and saw little Rebecca, the 9-year-old girl from the Italian home rented by her husband, and saw her holding up a sign that read: "Forza Clara."

"That made me smile."

The word forza translates in English as strength, force. To race 5,000 metres, against the three-time defending gold-medal winner, with Klassen leading, and Hughes, in her fourth Olympics, trailing by two seconds with one lap to go, is forceful enough.

"I'm in shock," Hughes said. "I couldn't believe I actually won the Olympics ... It was like you were running for your life. It's like you were going to die out there. I still can't believe it.

"I have my legs and my heart and my head and I know anything is possible."

After the win and the tears and the shock and the hugs, Clara Hughes turned back to the kids. She isn't a wealthy woman. She has $10,000 in a bank account at home: Her savings, she calls it. She will donate that money to Right To Play, the charitable organization that promotes sport for underprivileged countries.

She made that decision before the race.

"When I saw those kids, I just knew I can't just do this for myself."

She did it for the kids. She did it for her herself. She did it for us.

Clara Hughes: Always giving something back.

ON THE PODIUM

WOMEN'S SPEED SKATING 5,000 M

GOLD

Clara Hughes Canada

SILVER

Claudia Pechstein Germany

BRONZE

Cindy Klassen Canada







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