One Careless Moment

The following text is provided courtesy of Clara Hughes.

It's finally here: the last trip of the season and though I feel more motivated to race than I have all year, I cannot help but think of the fact that I return home after it's all over. Not home to my training base in Calgary, where I spend the better part of the year as a speed skater, but my real home in the beautiful Eastern Townships of Quebec. It has been a long haul in many ways, one which has seen me separated from not only home but also, and in a much more difficult sense, my husband Peter.

Through various crackdowns I have pondered quitting this dream I am living, one that has offered me so much both personally and professionally, and gone home to, quite simply, watch the birds. I suppose that makes me human and though I constantly remind myself of the unbelievable opportunities that I have, I am still vulnerable in the most basic human levels. My secret to success is happiness; without it I am nothing.

I had a reality check when packing on Friday, one to remind me of just how lucky I am to be pursuing these dreams. It's when everything is flowing smoothly that one begins to assume it will continue to be 'easy' and smooth. We forget the fine line walked just to exist, naive of the risks in day-to-day life, never mind the luck involved to stay healthy at this level of athleticism.

I had already done the dreaded deed of packing my bike for the trip (my TREK racing machine that weighs in at around eighteen pounds, wheels and all) and went on to disassemble my touring bike, which had doubled all winter as my car in Calgary. Carelessly I lifted the beast just like I had with the other when it happened...without warning my back ceased up and I was left in shock, filled with vomit-inducing pain and unable to move. As my eyes welled up I dropped the bike, frantically wondering what I should and should not do, never having dealt with this level of pain before. I was alone in the basement feeling like my spine had snapped and all I could think about was the World Championships in two weeks. In my heart I believed my season was over in one careless moment. I cursed myself for being so stupid, wishing I could turn back the clock and make the right decision of waiting for Peter to return home and pack it as he had offered to. Instead I tried to do everything by myself-which I often do-and was paying dearly.

Slowly and painfully I straightened myself out and crept up the stairs to the living room. It was all I could do to get up those stairs and after lowering myself to the couch I began to cry. I could only think of the worst scenario and was sure surgery was inevitable. Nothing like this had ever happened to me and at thirty years old had naively thought I was bulletproof.

As I become more mobile I couldn't help but try to get into the skating position, just to see if I could, and each time I did a seething pain shot through my body. I thought of Catriona Le May Doan and wondered how on earth she had done it all season long with her back injury. Peter did not know what to do but be the calm soul he is, and I resigned myself to getting through the long flight to Europe and waiting for Monday when we were to meet up with the sprint team in Holland, and our therapists who traveled with them.

At 9pm my patience ran out and I called my coach Xiuli, sheepishly telling her what had happened. She told me that one of the therapists, Lorrie Maffey, was indeed traveling with us the following day. Immediately we both tried to reach her. Although it was late I needed to talk to someone who had experience with such injuries and it was not only helpful but relieving to talk with her. I somewhat hysterically recounted the moment as well as each and every detail of pain I had experienced since. She comforted me with confidence, making me believe I would be fine in two, maximum three days. Peter went out on a late-night run for ibuprofen to tide me over until the next day when I would see her in the airport.

After checking in and clearing customs Lorrie opened shop in the waiting area. A true professional, prepared for any situation, she was in her element. With coats covering the dirty rug I laid face down as she massaged my tight back muscles, performed an ultrasound treatment then proceeded to crack my back so loud those travelers not already staring in awe turned to look. With the relief she provided I believed I was going to be not only fine, but perhaps even better than ever, for the upcoming World Cup final and World Championships. As athletes we are like racing cars: without tune-ups and experts to treat us even the best preparation can be ruined in an instant.

Sitting in the hotel I cannot help but think of how lucky I am. When I say this people inevitably say "there's no luck involved, it's just how hard you work," and I agree, but this was a reminder for me to be careful. Accidents are something one cannot go through life obsessing about yet it is critical to be careful in everything one does. Peter always reminds me to be careful, slow down and think about what I am doing. Xiuli reminds me to ask for help instead of being stubborn and trying to do it all alone. What stands out most, however, is to never, ever, even for a moment, move outside of each moment and experience I pass through. Each one, good and bad, are fleeting, but you never know when it may be the last.

Clara