Heroes home at last

ANGELA MACISAAC -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

Maybe it's something in the water in Winnipeg?

Nope.

It's something in the air, says its native daughter Clara Hughes.

"I think it's more the minus-40 with the wind chill," the speed skater said, laughing. "It makes you tough."

Hughes, Cindy Klassen and the rest of Team Canada arrived to a hero's welcome at Calgary airport yesterday, following an Olympic performance in Turin, Italy, that paced the nation to its best Winter Games showing.

Of the 12 medals speed skaters won, Klassen accounted for five -- one gold, two silver and two bronze.

"It was a long trip, the longest trip I've ever been on," said the 26-year-old, whose five medals in a single Winter Games is unmatched by any Canadian athlete. "I've been gone for six weeks. I'm just excited to sleep in my own bed."

It was lengthened by an appearance at the final World Cup race of the season in Heerenveen, Netherlands, over the weekend, where Klassen won the 3,000-metres to earn the overall Cup title.

In less than two weeks, she returns to the track for the world championships at the Olympic Oval.

"I'm a little bit tired from the travel but we're all excited to race in front of the home crowd," she said. "There's no more travel for a while now.

"We have a strong team going in. We're skating on our own ice and we know what it feels like. I think we have the advantage here in Calgary."

Hughes, who became the first Olympian to win multiple medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, won't be competing at worlds March 18-19.

The 5,000m gold medallist in Turin, Italy, didn't qualify.

Instead, she'll take a vacation "somewhere warm" and rest before starting training for next season.

But the question on everyone's minds revolves around 2010 and the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

"I'm still in the beginning years as a speed skater," said Hughes. "It's been proven many times before that women reach their physiological peak in their mid- to late-30s as endurance athletes.

"My first Olympics, the woman that won the road race in cycling was 37 years old and that's how old I'll be in Vancouver. On that day, I thought what it took to win a gold medal at the Olympics and I'm pretty excited to be at my peak time at the Olympics in Vancouver."

Klassen, at 26, is just a baby by comparison. And she fully intends to compete in Vancouver.

"Having the Olympics in Vancouver, that's motivation enough," she said. "Hopefully I'll be at my strongest when the Games come."

The entire team, especially the women with Kristina Groves and Shannon Rempel, will continue to grow in strength, Klassen added.

"We did really well (in Turin) and that will give us a lot of confidence going into Vancouver," she said, acknowledging Canada has never won Olympic gold on Canadian soil.

"Racing in Canada with the home crowd, that's something we'll be so proud of -- to represent our country here."

The key, said Hughes, is the support from top to bottom on the speed skating team.

"A lot of other countries noticed that (in Turin)," she said. "They saw the fun we had and they felt that's what made the difference for us. I think it's definitely a weapon for us."

For now, however, they'll cherish the medals they earned at Olympics and display them proudly for whomever wishes to see them.

Hughes has already passed around her silver for team pursuit.

"It went to a school in Italy where my husband was staying," she said.

"The people we were renting from have a nine-year-old daughter and I think over 100 little Italian kids wore it before I won the gold medal.

"It's really neat to have these and share with people, especially children. You see their eyes light up and it can inspire dreams in kids. I'm grateful to have them for that reason."


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