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

Hamar, Norway
Friday, February 06, 2004


Team building exercises are common in sport. The years I spent as a racing cyclist began with training camps involving stints with professional ‘team building’ companies. Cycling team members were put through drills, anywhere from scaling a climbing wall harnessed in threes; falling back off a table into the linked arms of the rest of the team; sitting in a circle expressing strengths, weaknesses, all in hope of opening up and trusting one another. These methods worked, initially, yet never seemed to last. It was always the experiences shared on the road, in the races, that built or destroyed the potential of the team in terms of spirit. Each year was different, some yielding a tight unit; others resulting in a group of strangers.

The first few years after returning to speed skating I trained separately from the national team. We all did our own thing, essentially, and had success as individuals. After the 2002 Olympics the National Team was restructured and the goal was to be more of a team. There was to be one system in place that would hopefully work for everyone, and suddenly I found myself training with the girls I had traveled with for two years, yet hardly knew below the surface level. Though it was not perfect, we were able to find a balance of pushing each other on the ice and friendship off the ice that created a fantastic team environment. The guys were another story. They struggled to find any sort of team spirit, yet still we hoped something would change for them and that they would, too, enjoy the momentum we had ridden all season long.

We came back together as a team again this past September. It’s been a different year, with injury and some people needing to do things a little bit different, and taken longer to reach the point of feeling like a team. Before leaving for the World Championships, here in Norway this weekend, our sports psychologist Dr. Kimberley Amirault called a meeting with the racers. Seven of us sat around the table and were asked individually to express what we need as individuals leading up to and during the competition, and then what we feel we have to offer to the team. It was motivating to sit and listen to each individual's comments; interesting and thought-provoking. For some it was a chance to express thoughts and desires already contemplated; others it was a chance to think for the first time what we wanted out of the weekend. It was the latter for me, and I was grateful to have been spurred on to thinking in terms of goals for the weekend. It was the groundwork that paved the way for this trip to unfold.

With this stimulus we arrived in Europe. From the beginning it was a different feeling. Our group was really a team, not just the girls, but the guys as well. Every day at the rink we would warm-up together, on and off the ice, support each other with encouragement during the faster laps, and laugh a lot on and off the ice.

Yesterday, with two days to go until the first race of the weekend, Tara Risling brought out the poster paper, coloring pencils, paints and pastels she had carefully packed in her bike box. Back in Calgary she had the idea of a ‘team craft project’ that she shared with Arne Dankers, who in turn suggested we make a team banner to hang in the oval. We so rarely see Canadian flags or banners over here that they decided we should make our own and hang it rink-side for the weekend.

Six out of seven of us were game as we settled into the conference area of the hotel; each assigned a letter of CANADA to decorate as we pleased. There were no rules to follow except to be open and to have fun. Little did we know the Dutch team was having their press conference in the same area and it was funny to see the contrast in the attention doted on them and our lack there of. We felt lucky to sit and color instead of answering questions about the weekend. If we were the Canadian Junior Hockey Team (male) competing in the same event it would be a different story. I think they all thought we were nuts as we switched between modes of intense concentration and gut-busting laughter. It was fun to get away from the racing thoughts of competition and to use a different part of the brain. Most importantly, we did it together, each one of us adding our special uniqueness to the finished product. Kimberley, our sports psych, was there to fill in the gaps we missed, or in Jay Morrison’s case to help him find the motivation within to finish his letter ‘C.’

We were coloring intensely when some of the Dutch journalists came over to film our progress. They seemed intrigued that we were doing such a thing. We pretended not to notice, each of us mumbling under our breath ‘I can’t believe they're filming this,’ secretly willing them away. You see, we were not doing this for attention. We hid away in the back of the hotel to do this in seclusion; to do it for ourselves and have some fun. It worked because it was not something we were told to do; it was an idea from two of the team members, genuine and fun. We came together that afternoon and created a beautiful, unique rendition of CANADA. It represents us as individuals, each letter being a reflection of each skater, yet when put together reflects us as a team, colorful and diverse.

The extremes of our personalities on this piece of paper led to a mind-boggling array of pictures. From bunnies to beavers, maple leafs to Grover from Sesame Street, flowers to little cars, mountains to the Calgary Tower- this poster is a pictorial rendition of our sometimes bizarre psyches. It is Canada; it is us.

The banner hangs alongside the 1500 m start line, likely one of very few visual signs of support we will have in the massive Viking Ship facility. Yet, when I think about the strength within our team right now, we have all the support we need.