The end of a Clara

Historic Hughes to bid farewell to Olympics in 5,000

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Win or lose, this will be special.

The end of an Olympic career unmatched by anyone, anywhere on the planet.

For it to end here, in her home country, in the race that provided her defining moment, both as an Olympian and humanitarian, well, it just couldn't be more perfect.

What Clara Hughes is thinking and feeling on the eve of the 5,000-metre speed-skating event, her final race of these Games, of any Games, we can only imagine. The skaters are kept from the media on days they don't compete, but the last time Hughes shared her thoughts, after the 3,000 metres last week, she talked about wanting to "dance on my blades," thanks to the incredible energy she received from the crowd at the Richmond Oval.

"It was beautiful," Hughes said. "I can't even express what that felt like, being in that tunnel of energy."

And then, this: "I can't wait for the 5-k. Give me five more laps."

That's as close to a prediction as you'll ever get from Hughes. Results and medals don't figure into her game plan. She's about as far away from the whole Own the Podium mind-set as an athlete could be.

For her, it's about the moment. About coaxing more from your body and mind than you've ever coaxed before. A search for the perfect race.

Awards are simply the by-product of an excruciating, and at the same time beautiful, process.

Ironically, Hughes has collected more of them than any athlete in Olympic history, when you consider she's the woman of both seasons.

When Hughes followed up her two Summer Games medals in cycling (1996 in Atlanta) with one in speed skating at Salt Lake City, the red-haired Winnipeg product became the first woman and fourth athlete ever to win a medal at both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

She went one further with her gold-medal skate in the 5,000 in Turin, becoming the only person, living or dead, to win multiple medals in both.

That would have been a great way to bow out -- on top, a lasting, crowning memory capped by Hughes' $10,000 donation to Right to Play, an organization that helps kids in Third World countries. Her generosity and sincerity that day touched hearts worldwide, spawning another $400,000 in donations.

But Hughes couldn't ignore the pull of a home Games.

So at 37, she's back for one last hurrah.

"I've never coached anyone at 37," Hughes coach Xiuli Wang told QMI Agency. "She's fit. She's focused. She's really prepared. She's happy."

And, perhaps, more inspired than ever.

Hughes was so impressive in last week's 3,000, finishing a surprising fifth, skaters back in Calgary, where she used to train, sent messages lauding the way she had performed.

It's been an up-and-down period for Hughes since Turin. At times she's struggled to find her form. She was in fine form, though, when one reporter asked about the huge medal expectations on Team Canada.

"I don't think about medals," Hughes said. "I think about performance. I think about skating and executing maximum efficiency of power. And letting myself be inspired by what's around me. I can't fathom thinking that way going into a race.

"I just want to be the best I can, and on the 24th I have one more chance to do that."

And we have one more chance to watch it.

"You wish she has a special moment," Wang said. "I do, too. In the end, whatever the result, I will cheer for her. Whatever comes out, that's a person who has set an example for sports."

On the Olympic stage, nobody has done it better.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca


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