Years of practice, minutes of perfection - Athlete Journal by Clara Hughes

In search of that beautiful sensation


It was the skate of a lifetime, but I almost wish it didn't happen. From my very first step at a recent World Cup in Berlin, it was clear something special was unfolding.

It felt like a dance. I was moving to a rhythm deep within my core. As my blades pushed through the ice, this pulse moved into my feet, ankles, up through my legs and into my heart.

Never before had I felt this, and perhaps never will again. It's something you strive towards in training, being hard on yourself to make every minute element of your skating perfect.

It's sheer repetition, like in martial arts when you practise a punch or kick, until you get to the point of having the movement happen through you without being conscious of yourself or your body.

That takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. When we train in Calgary, our coach Xiuli Wang stands on the sidelines and doesn't need names with her instructions as we skate past.

She'll shout, "Shoulder."

Right away we know who and what she's talking about.

I remember being conscious of each placement of the blade on the ice that afternoon in Berlin (where Hughes won gold in the 3,000-metre event).

While racing I had an acute awareness of the slow, calm rate of my breath, not the normal state of exhaustion racing typically entails — this breath was controlled, not desperate to finish. I didn't want the race or the beautiful sensation of skating to end.

Now comes the hard part — trying to replicate it.

Every day I've skated since then, I try to remember how it felt. How did I swing my arm? What was my weight transfer? What was the glide? Was it tight?

I'm trying to replicate the position of my body and at the same time I'm aware that the more I try, the further away it will be.

It's necessary to put in hours of trying, changing and attempts at mimicking what that feeling was and to struggle with my body to the point of frustration. The result of these sessions of physical and technical training is a base of muscle memory. Only after a period of rest does the calm set into body and mind, and with this a capacity that allows the body to respond with sharpness and efficiency.

This has all been part of my evolution since the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. I've changed from being a cyclist who skated. Now, I feel like a speed skater.

The hard work is paying off for my Canadian teammates and me. They don't know what to make of us right now in Europe. The German women have dominated distance speed skating for decades, but we became the team to beat early this season, by winning all but two of the eight World Cup races in December. We placed second in the races we didn't win.

The German media kept asking us, "What's your secret?"

The Dutch reporters say they've watched us working as a team in practice and have seen how we push each other. That's something you don't see among the European teams.

Teammate Cindy Klassen told me the best thing about all the World Cups was our team sitting in the change room. There the Germans were quiet and serious, and we were laughing wholeheartedly together just a few hours before our races.

I looked at the Germans and I thought to myself, "You'll never have what we have."

In the meantime, it's a matter of persevering through the training, through the sheer exhaustion that has me belly flopping on the ice and barely able to summon the strength to get up.

The deep understanding of what I do gives me the ability to embrace the struggles and go through the dark times in training.

In the distance, I hear the soft beat of a drum and each day the sound becomes clearer to my heart. I dream of dancing to the rhythm, with pure form and movement, creating the unorthodox dance skating can be at its best. Even if it only lasts three kilometres.