Why would one of Canada's most decorated Olympians decide to jump back into competition at the age of 38? Cyclist and speedskater Clara Hughes had said this year's Olympics in Vancouver — where she captured the speedskating bronze medal in the 5,000 m (her sixth Olympic medal) — would be her last. But as she tells CBCSports.ca, when it comes to cycling, she has a lot more to give and will try for a new personal best at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
CBCSports.ca: How did you make your decision to return to cycling for the 2012 Games in London?
Clara Hughes: It's been a work in progress, something that has been in my mind as a distinct possibility for the past four years. It really was just a matter of getting far enough away from the Vancouver Olympics to make this decision for the right reason, and that was just that it was something that I can't not do.
I have to go and find out what I can do on the bike because I feel like I can be so much better than I've been, and I'm just really motivated to try and see what is possible.
CBC: Why try the comeback? You've already accomplished the rare feat of winning medals at both the summer and winter Olympics. Do you have something to prove to yourself or others?
CH: No, I've never had anything to prove, and I've never tried to break any records or win more medals than anyone, or medal here or medal there (laughs). That's stuff that's just been a result of putting everything I have into what I love to do, and this is a continuation of how I've always gone about sport … the ultimate pursuit of personal excellence, of bringing my best self to the line and, hopefully, setting an example for kids and people that anything is possible.
When you give everything, magic can happen, and that's what inspired me initially to be an Olympic athlete — seeing Gaetan Boucher in 1988 in his last race. He finished in ninth place, but what inspired me was that he was not willing to give up; he gave everything of himself.
And that's what I always tried to show people that were watching, particularly young people, that it's the effort that matters. It's what you bring of yourself that matters, and that's why I'm doing this and what I want to bring of myself if I'm good enough to make this team.
Oscar Swahn: The Swedish shooter was the ultimate late bloomer, winning his first Olympic gold at age 60 before going on to capture five more medals, including a silver in 1920 at age 72 – well past the average life expectancy at the time.
Robin Welsh: The British curler was 54 when he won gold in 1924. That's still the record for the oldest gold medallist in Winter Games history.
Carl Lewis: The American track and field legend captured his ninth and final Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta, winning the long jump at age 35.
Lori-Ann Muenzer: The Canadian track cyclist won Olympic gold in the women's sprint in Athens in 2004 at age 38.
Duff Gibson: The Canadian became the oldest gold medallist in an individual Winter Olympic event when he won the men's skeleton in 2006.
Jeannie Longo: The French cyclist was 49 when she finished fourth in the road time trial at the 2008 Beijing Games, her seventh Olympic appearance.
Constantina Tomescu: The Romanian won the women's marathon in Beijing at age 38.
Dara Torres: The American swimmer won three silver medals at age 41 in Beijing, her fifth Olympic Games. She's attempting to qualify for the 2012 London Games, where she'd be chasing her 13th Olympic medal.
— Jesse Campigotto, CBCSports.ca
CBC: What were you doing after the last skating season ended? Did you have a lot of free time?
CH: No, I've had little to no free time (laughs). But it's been a really unique roller coaster ride that I've been on since the Olympics … I've been very, very busy with public speaking engagements all across Canada. Also my husband and I did a big kayak trip on Great Slave Lake, so I was up north for about a month and a half this summer and in the bush for five weeks … [it's] such a beautiful part of the world, but also we just had such special experiences with the Dene Chipewyan people in that part of the North. We were invited to their annual spiritual gathering [and] met so many elders in that community and just had a really awesome cultural experience in Canada that we'll never forget.
It's been really special because everywhere I've been in Canada there's just so much excitement and pride that people have in our Olympics, and they're sharing their stories with me as to what their favourite moment was or where they were when that moment happened, and as an athlete, it means a lot to hear those stories. I've barely been home … but I've been travelling with my bike as much as I've been travelling. I've had really fantastic training rides all over Canada because of it, [and] it's been quite a whirlwind experience.
CBC: You retired from cycling in 2003. Why did you make that decision then?
CH: Because I was doing three sports at the same time (long-track speedskating, track cycling and road cycling), and I did that for two years. And then I blew my back out. I was doing too much. What I was doing is not humanly possible, and I did it for two years and succeeded in both sports at the highest level, and then, my back gave out because my body couldn't handle it.
So, I had to make a choice at that time: did I want to commit to the bike, or did I really want to try to just be a speedskater? And I realized I hadn't given myself a chance to just be a speedskater, so I wanted to see what that was, and I committed to that until the 2006 Olympics.
Even though I won… I didn't feel like I had skated my best race, and that's what really kept me going for Vancouver. I still felt like I had that best, perfect race living inside of me, and I wanted to make it happen at the Olympics at home. And then they happened, and it was ironic because I didn't win. I finished third, but I consider that to be my greatest race.
I stopped cycling because I couldn't do everything, and now, I feel I have a chance to pour myself into this sport one more time.
CBC: That being said, do you have any plans to try and skate in 2014 Olympics in Sochi?
CH: No (laughs). That's a firm no. When I crossed the line in my 5,000 metres in Vancouver, before I even looked at the time that I skated, I knew that was my last stride — that race was poetry in motion. That's how I always dreamed of skating, skating beautifully for Canada, and I knew that was my last race.