Olympic icon a beacon of hope

Anthony Abbondanza
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Clara Hughes cross-country bike tour inspires the West Island’s mental health community and one particular filmmaker

As Clara Hughes climbed off her bike to greet a crowd of cheerful supporters, one fan looked on with particular interest from the second floor of Specialized Canada’s Ste. Anne de Bellevue office.

It was the first time Patricia MacDowell was about to meet a Canadian hero, true to a personal cause.

The six-time cycling and speed skating Olympic medallist had just travelled over 100 kilometres from Cornwall, Ontario as part of her cross-country tour, ‘Clara’s Big Ride’ to spread the word about the crippling effects of mental health problems.

It’s a problem MacDowell knows all too well. The Pointe Claire native was 19 when she began experiencing symptoms associated with anxiety disorder.

“When I was younger no one understood. People thought I was having a burnout and that I was crazy,” said MacDowell, who manages the Baie D’Urfé Curling Club. “I thought I was going crazy.”

But soon the 44-year-old, with the help of medication, was back on track. The battle, however, is far from over.

“We’re all a work in process. I can’t say ‘yeah, I’m great.’ Some days are harder than others,” said MacDowell.

Hughes, too, experienced dark days during her prolific speed skating and cycling career before becoming a national spokesperson for Bell’s Let’s Talk mental health initiative four years ago.

“I just feel like she understands me,” said MacDowell, who’s putting the finishing touches to her film ‘Sweeping Forward,’ inspired by her bout with anxiety disorder.

In collaboration with the Bell Let’s Talk annual campaign, Hughes has embarked on a 12,000-kilometre, 110-days journey, spanning 95 communities, to break the stigma surrounding mental health problems.

 “I feel like everything I did in sports, races, Olympics brought me to the here and now. To really do something important and that something is to connect people and to show the world what we can do as a nation,” the 41-year-old Hughes told the crowd, young and old, at Specialized Canada.

Following her first Summer Olympics in 1996 where she won two bronze medals in cycling, Hughes, 23 years old at the time, experienced her first bout with depression. The Winnipeg native grew up in what she described as “dysfunctional family environment.”

Her father, who died last June, was an alcoholic and bipolar. Her sister, too, was bipolar. 

Hughes would recover from those darks days of the late 90s through her passion – sport. She went on to win four more Winter Olympic medals, this time in speed skating.

Her medals not only represent her physical abilities, but her courage in overcoming an illness which affects millions of Canadians every year.

“These represent everything. They represent the struggle, the joys of the sport. And I’m someone who’s struggled with depression,” she said.

Now, the Canadian icon is spending her retirement helping others overcome their darkness with one simple message: “If someone tells you that you’re worthless, useless, and hopeless and should just give up, please tell them you met this girl from Winnipeg and she has a bag of medals.”

Follow @AAbbondanza! on Twitter!

Organizations: Specialized Canada, Bell, Big Ride Baie D’Urfé Curling Club

Geographic location: West Island, Cornwall, Ontario Winnipeg

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