A weekend I will never forget

The following text is provided courtesy of Clara Hughes


Monday, February 10, 2003

It's the morning after and what a weekend it was...I am at a loss as to where I should begin this narrative. It was perhaps the most exciting weekend of my sporting career. Anyone who knows me realizes the enormity of this statement and it's with the last race of the four-distance All-around World Championships I will start.

We had been racing for a day and a half, the four shorter distances (500 m, 1500 m, 3000 m) selecting the final twelve skaters to race the last event: the 5000 m. Just over an hour earlier we had skated the 1500 m and already it was time to do the warm-up routine of bike, stretch and skate for that final test of truth. The lowest cumulative time at the end of the day would be crowned World Champion and silently we hoped to see that maple leaf fly high in the cool Swedish winter night.

For a week we had trained and rested in Gothenburg, Sweden, each with goals and dreams fueling our excitement as the racing drew near. Tara Risling, Kristina Groves, Cindy Klassen, Catherine Raney ('Raney' is our token American-an irreplaceable training partner who dons the stars and stripes come race day, but in our hearts in 'one of us,' as without her we are not complete as a team) and myself had been opening eyes all season with consistent World Cup results. After rounding out second through fifth, and fourteenth place, in the 3000 m, people really began to ask questions. We went from the suspect Canadians whom many thought would not last the season after a successful debut in the fall, winning world cups in the 1500 and 3000 m, as well as medals and personal best placings in all other races, to being the 'team to watch.' Each of us were having the seasons of our lives and had worked even harder to prepare for the second, and most important, half of the season.

Coaches, team leaders, skaters, therapists all began to ask 'What are you girls doing in Calgary?' while trying to figure out our 'secret.' Well, there is no secret. There is hard work and the strength of a team that makes us good. Without our coach, Xiuli Wang, and her ability to bring people together we would be like most of the female skaters in our sport, individuals. Because we respect one another and truly BELIEVE that when one of us succeeds it makes each of us better, we are able to support one another from our hearts. This is a rare thing with females, and I admit I have never wanted to train with a group of women for fear of dealing with hormones and emotion. You see girls have a different way of dealing with issues-usually it involves a knife and a back. It is rare to see a group of women up front with each other. Not that we are 100% successful of this, but we try to be. By being open and honest with each other we have built a foundation of trust. Through that trust comes support. This combination equals a unity each of us feeds off. It's beautiful, it's fun and it is our weapon.

First pair in the 5000 m I found myself on the line with Catherine. Though we were tired I think both of us felt a certain sense of relief to 'get it over with.' It's a funny thing, racing, as much motivation there is inside it always feels better when it is over and one can reflect on one's performance. Yes, there is the moment to immerse oneself in, but it is usually filled with pain! I enjoy the struggle but think the feeling of overcoming the struggle is what I love most.

There was only one thing to do in the situation of not knowing how fast to go, what the winning time was going to be-and that's to try and set the bar so high that no other could overtake you. It had been my goal coming into these championships to win the 5000 m and there I was with my chance. The ice was slow it took a hockey-like style to keep the pressure in each stride so as not to slow down. When the gun went off I focused on that crude rhythm and fought each and every step not to give in to the burning pain building in my legs.

The stands were almost full with sections of orange, red and blue, yellow and blue (Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish fans). Being the first pair there was not much cheering going on because, well, we were going so slow. It was everything I had and the results were lap times I had not skated since over a decade ago on non-clap skates. The voice I heard every lap was that of Tara, my teammate, telling me I was strong, I could do it, ‘this is your race!’ Tara is small in stature but there lies strength of character and tenacity within that little girl that would frighten the toughest guy. Gregor, our Quebecois coach, calls her a 'mean little beast.' Anyone who knows Tara will laugh at that name. She gave me strength every time around, just past the start finish line, and as the race went on I began to look forward to hearing her voice again and again.

Looking up to the scoreboard after crossing the line was a bit of a shock. 7'25" was the time, and though it was slow I knew I had done all I could. I was exhausted and frozen. My hands were like blocks of ice and burning. I thought a lot about my hands in the race they hurt so much and that, too, pushed me to go faster. I reasoned the faster I skated, the sooner I finished, the closer to my gloves I was. A hockey stop later I had all the warm I could find wrapped around my body and was off the ice as fast as possible.

Opening the dressing room door I saw Cindy in the corner preparing. Kristina did the same in the other. I kept the relief, the joy, of being finished, to myself, as I did not want to interfere with the other girl's focus. Cindy looked pretty nervous and everyone was trying to calm her down. We all wanted her to win but not to give her anymore pressure. Just tried to be friends, laugh a little, ease the tension. I shared everything I could with her and Kristina about the ice conditions, how it felt, trying to give them strength and confidence.

Those of us not racing returned to the cold track, exactly where Tara had sat and screamed for me, and prepared to damage our vocal cords. First up was Kristina who skated one of the best races of her career. Not only did she hold her sixth position in the overall, she bettered it to fourth. Poor thing had the same frozen hands that I had suffered from. Cold but ecstatic she made her way over to our cheering section and we all sat nervous awaiting the showdown between Cindy, who sat in first place overall, and Claudia Pechtein of Germany, in second.

The race was tight because Cindy had only a 7.88 second buffer on Claudia. This seems like a lot but with Claudia, who is the Olympic Champion and world record holder in the 5000 m, we knew anything was possible. We gave Cindy all the strength we had screaming louder than all the Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish fans together. We knew she could do it but would she have the confidence to fight? One moment of doubt during the race and it would have been over. As the duo came down the finishing stretch it was evident Cindy was going to be the new World Champion and we jumped with joy. It's like that when your teammate wins, you feel like you win as well. It wasn't until Catherine looked over and said 'Clara, you won the 5000 m!' that I realized I had won the distance. It seemed secondary compared to the triumph of Cindy, and took a few moments to sink in. When it did I jumped some more, recognizing the significance of winning over Claudia.

Though we had broken through the stranglehold the German women have had on distance skating in the autumn World Cups, they still, in ways, had seemed untouchable to us. Even after winning a 3000 m world cup earlier in the season it wasn't enough. I needed to know that Claudia was beatable, was human, in my favorite distance: the 5000 m. With Cindy's overall success and the depth of our TEAM we had really done it, shown ourselves that we could be, in fact are, some of the finest women skaters in the world at this moment in time. I hope that others can follow, become better and push us to improve as well. Until then, we have our Team, through victory and defeat. We've worked so hard. I have confidence that as long as we continue to challenge each other and not settle for where we are now, the best is still yet to come.