Journal entry courtesy Clara Hughes, member of the national speed skating team.

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Calgary, Alberta


It has finally arrived: the last trip of the year. This morning marks our departure for Seoul, Korea, and the World Single Distance Championships. This is the race I’ve been waiting for all year, patiently honing body and mind in preparation for the elusive peak all athletes strive for during the biggest race of the year.

When I think back to a year ago, when in agony after throwing out my back before travel to Europe and exhausted mentally and physically after so much racing and pressure all winter long, I realize the special nature the present offers. Last year I began to think too much about the impending cycling season, worried about the trials I had to perform at early spring in order to make the world championships the following autumn, and missed so many special moments. I had so lost my grip on the present that the second place overall in the world cup, coupled with the silver medal at the world championships, in spite of an injured back, offered little fulfillment. That’s what happens when one is overwhelmed with too many pursuits; the most valuable moments are lost when the brain is too far ahead in the future.

Upon reflection of the prior six months I look not at results, but perspective, in gauging my progression. Because I was able to absorb all that I moved through, with awareness and patience, I realize I have grown in ways made possible only through the detachment to my usual way of doing things allowed. Because I was so exhausted after the summer (and the winter before that, the summer before that, the winter before…basically I have not come up for air since the 2000 Summer Olympics!) that I knew if I pushed too hard; put too much pressure on myself, I would break. I was cracked but not broken, in terms of energy and motivation, and I knew if I was careful the crack that formed would mend, perhaps becoming even stronger as a result. With the support and encouragement of my coach and so many people that believe in me, I backed off.

Now, this may seem easy to do, but I am a competitive person and it took a lot of energy to go to World Cups knowing I could not perform to my potential. Races I won last year I would barely make the top fifteen. People would ask me what was wrong, and I would smile and tell them nothing, everything was fine. And, believe it or not, it was.

As the weeks passed I felt my perspective grow and felt myself change. I felt the mind of the beginner creep into my psyche and knew something special was happening. Instead of getting frustrated or demoralized I became more motivated. I began to look at technique and perspective as the tools I could hone, and with the help of the coaches began to make steps towards new levels of both. Because my body was tired; my competitive fire somewhat dormant; I was able to focus with great intensity on areas I was always too tired to really work on when so focused on winning, times, placing, etc…

I returned from Europe, a trip deemed a disappointment by many, bursting with motivation. Each stride on the ice was an opportunity to improve. I worked on really feeling my technique, figuring out how I felt and how to turn this awareness into technical changes. The more I did this, the more profound each session became. I moved closer and closer into the moment, to the millisecond, the more I focused on feeling what I was doing. Instead of thinking about effort alone, as I normally did, this way of skating allowed for the evolution of a moving meditation.

By the time the World All-round Championships began in Norway, I realized I was in a special place. I went there with the focus of allowing the races to happen, not fighting to try and make them happen. I felt so aware that I was ready for anything, if someone had thrown marbles on the ice I would have simply moved through them, like it was the most natural thing to do. I saw the ice and my opponents as the unknown: both could throw any punches at anytime, I would have to be flexible and open to mirror what was sent my way, using a minimal of energy.

During the 3000 m I felt the sensations I dreamed possible. As I moved through the race I felt like I was floating, aware of each stride, glide, every ounce of pressure applied to the ice. It was the moving meditation I felt in training, beautiful in its simplicity, profound in that it happened through me, completely void of the consciousness of thought which hinders the flow. The 5000 m race was not as easy, physically, but because I went to the line open and ready for whatever each moment was to be, it did not worry me to feel so tired after only 200 m. Instead I worked with what I had, not losing focus, into each moment. When a small crossover problem occurred and I had to wait for my pair, Dutch skater Gretha Smit, to pass as she had the right of way, losing speed at a crucial time in the race, I reacted with calm and built my speed back with a minimal of effort. I did not think the incident until after when Gretha apologized, and I wondered why she said sorry. When I remembered what happened I knew I was in a special place. I took adversity as if it was a normal happening, not wasting an ounce on it.

Next stop was Inzell, Germany, our training base for the ten days leading to the World Cup in the Bavarian Mountain town. Each day we faced a different weather system, each lap on the ice it was necessary to adapt one’s technique to get any speed with the changing surface. I began to love skating outdoors, thriving in the constant need to adapt. I began to see the elements as my opponent, and I had to be ready to work with the blows it sent my way. I went into the 3000 m race in this mindset, prepared for the constantly changing wind, ice and temperature. Each stride was adapted to the moment and I finished feeling the bliss of a deep meditation, even through my muscles screaming with pain.

And now, as my final preparation comes to an end, and the biggest race of the year approaches, I feel ready to move into this last phase. With an open mind and a strong body I feel excited to compete, to accept and deal with all that the competition has to offer. That I did not have as successful, in terms of results, season as last year is perhaps the greatest opportunity I’ve received in a long time. It forced me to step outside of myself, to become open and to learn in new ways. The reward is awareness, perspective and a grasp so strong on what my passion is. I feel this rapture of being alive, truly alive, more than I have felt about anything I have done in my life. I don’t feel rushed to do anything, the importance lies in allowing each moment to happen, and not lose the beauty each and every one offers.