EKWA!!!

Article provided courtesy of Clara Hughes.


As I sit admiring the soft early morning light draping the valley below in shades of spring, I cannot help but be filled with inspiration. This is the moment I have been dreaming of for months: to sit in silence in my home, sipping coffee and feeling no rush to do anything. For seven and a half months I have been gone, save for ten days over Christmas, which served more as a tease to strengthen the pains of homesickness than provide the peace I feel as I sit here now. My capacity has been extended to the breaking point and it's so good to be home.

To pursue speed skating is to live in Calgary. I wouldn't have it any other way. The Olympic Oval lives up to its image of the best training center for those who love to glide. It is a gift to be there and receive the support from the experts who care and share our success. My coach and mentor Xiuli Wang, who I would swim across the ocean to train with, is there. My Team who united with such sisterhood this year is there. Everything I need to be my best on the ice is there.

But still, this is home and there is no place like it. It is a refuge of sorts for me, the wife, athlete, and the student. Nothing can fill my heart like the sound of silence I find in the mountains of Quebec. As I think back to the weekend in Berlin, Germany it is difficult to comprehend that it was only Sunday I competed in the World Single Distance Speed Skating Championships. So many images run through my head. Only in reflection do I realize how profound the experience was. In a deeply spiritual level I feel I have grown.

The birds outside break the silence as the memories flash through my head. Going into Worlds I wanted to feel confident but instead was doubtful after the previous weekend's World Cup. I had 'blown up' two laps into the seven and a half lap race. As a result I lost my nerve and could not find the confidence to fight again. It left me fearful that I had reached my peak for the year and was no longer able to push myself. This was not a good way to go into the World Championships.

To deal with the doubts I began to look at the 3000 m race in Berlin as preparation for the following day's 5000 m. If I could finish strong it would set me up well for the longer distance.

It was a word from a friend that began to turn things around. During last winter's Olympics my friends up in LaRonge, Saskatchewan sent me a gift from the North. It was that word within the sentences of support so powerful it returned to me when I needed it most. It read:


EKWA!!! CLARA,

It means NOW. The kids, Tim, and me are with you. The kids and I will burn sweet grass and pray to the 4 directions and ask the creator for help to find more strength for you. Or to smile at you.


During the Olympics, the Cree word was tattooed on my hand with a ball-point pen as a reminder of where I wanted to be. Again, I scribbled the word on my hand as a reminder to remain within each moment. Not in the past or future, but in the Now.

All morning I saw the word. As I walked through the tunnel to the middle of the track I saw the word, thinking 'when I return the race will be over, so don't forget to live it while it is there.' Approaching the starting line I glanced down again and smiled. It was a mantra flowing through me. My only goal was to be within each and every moment. Gone were the fears of 'blowing up'; gone were the expectations one cannot help but feel at that level.

Crossing the line after 3000 m I knew I had done it. The moments were mine and I felt the strength of the highest mountain peaks pulsing through my veins. I was ready for the following day as clarity guided my senses. As I walked back through the tunnel hearing the introductions to the podium I knew I had succeeded in the deepest personal sense. That I finished forth was insignificant when compared with the moments I had just lived. I thought, 'here I am, walking through the tunnel,' knowing the moment of racing had passed. I continued to move through the present.

I was ready for the final race of the year, the 5000 m. There were many times I dreaded racing late afternoon like we did on that Sunday. It was different that day as I felt no rush to get to the line. Each moment leading into it as important as the race itself. Each moment I passed through with the mindset of EKWA, the more confident I became.

The stands were filled to capacity and I was in the last pair for the race. It was the pair everyone had been waiting for. It was Claudia's home track. She is the three-time Olympic Champion and world-record holder in the distance. Gretha Smit of The Netherlands had just finished a gutsy race and the sea of orange-clad Dutch skating fans waited on pins and needles to see if her leading time would hold. The place was buzzing with energy. I absorbed each molecule through my skin.

I thought of my teammate Kristina Groves who had skated earlier. We talked as I got ready to change and make my way to the ice. She smiled and her eyes sparkled as she looked at me and said, "Clara I don't care if I finish last, that was such a great race. I feel so satisfied and know I gave everything I had. I am so happy!" The intensity of her gaze, of her words, guided my already clear vision. Again I was reminded of the moment, the mindset, the true meaning of my pursuits.

The gun went off and something took over. I felt I was flying, not skating around the track. Claudia and I battled lap after lap; each time I took to the inner lane I would attack with everything I had to maintain the slight lead I gained early in the race. Each time she crossed to the inner she would counter attack. The roar of the crowd pushed me further and further into my reserves. With three laps to go she made her final move. I was unable to respond. Inside I fought with the pain of exertion, keeping myself in the moment of each stride, careful not to let go of the EKWA. I crossed the line a second and a half after Claudia, her time fast enough for the win, mine ahead of Gretha by a mere 3/100's of a second.

Though I was exhausted I knew I had done it. I had found the reserves I doubted were inside. The sheer joy of satisfaction was my reward. There was no disappointment that I hadn't won, not even relief of earning silver by a hair.

For years I have challenged myself in sport. In my heart it is clear to me why I go to the line time and again. I can assure you it's not a medal hanging around my neck that I am after. Medals are things I send to my Mom in Winnipeg, which she in turn shares with friends and family. They are not what provide the deep sense of accomplishment, which fills my sense of self, in turn teaching me how to live.

As I sit here those lessons guide me in terms of perception. Because I seek each moment with the simple goal of awareness, I am able to enjoy the view, the silence, and the clarity of thought. That's what racing is like when at its best, as it was this past weekend.

What I am left with is a lesson of life, a vivid reminder of EKWA, of who I am and how I strive to live, each and every moment of the way.