LONDON — One last push. Clara Hughes rounded the corner and passed a building with a huge Canadian flag flapping on the front. She gritted her teeth so hard, she seemed to smile. She lowered her head and pumped her legs, burning whatever fuel she had left.
One hundred more metres of suffering. As the fans leaned over, cheered and pounded on the barriers down the final straightaway, she looked up and opened her mouth wide, gasping for air. Her bike wobbled. She lowered her head again. She crossed the finish line.
And that was it.
Her incomparable Olympic career was over. She coasted on her bike with a grin.
Hughes was disappointed to finish fifth in the women's cycling time trial Wednesday, covering the 29-kilometre course in 38:28.96, about half a minute from a medal. She had not come back to this sport – and raced and trained for six weeks with a fractured vertebrae, an injury she kept quiet – just to wear the Maple Leaf one more time. She wanted to wear it on the podium, and she could have had more medals than any other Canadian.
But this is the Olympics, and she is 39, and she had spent a decade away from cycling, and she said: "That was the best I had in my legs, in my heart, in my head." And that was enough for her to feel proud.
"Believe me, I'm not here just to say, 'Oh, I want to have a good experience,' " Hughes said. "My good experience is emptying myself on the course. I was just really focused on making sure I didn't cross the line having any regrets, making sure I didn't cross the line thinking I lost my focus or I could have pushed harder. I was technically good, tactically good, and it was everything I had."
Canada has never had an Olympian like Hughes. No one has. She won six medals in her career, tying her with speedskater Cindy Klassen for the most in Canadian history, but she won hers in cycling and speedskating – two different sports, two different seasons. She is one of only five athletes in the world to medal in both the Summer and Winter Games, and she is the only athlete in the world to win multiple medals in both.
Her journey took her to Atlanta (bronze in road race, bronze in time trial), Sydney, Salt Lake (bronze in 5,000 metres), Torino (gold 5,000 metres, silver in team pursuit) and Vancouver (bronze 5,000 metres), where she carried her country's flag on home soil at the Opening Ceremony. Finally, it brought her here, where she finished 32nd in the road race Sunday in front of Buckingham Palace, home of Queen Elizabeth II, and completed the time trial Wednesday at Hampton Court Palace, once home to Henry VIII.
"It feels like someone chopped my head off and then stuck it back on," Hughes said with a laugh. "That's how much my head hurts right now."
Hughes has an intimate relationship with pain. Growing up in Winnipeg, she smoked, drank and experimented with drugs. But she changed her life because she was inspired by sports, and now she tries to inspire others through sports and multiple humanitarian organizations, helping disadvantaged children and native people.
This is a woman suited to efforts that reward strength, stamina and will. After Torino, she said she was done with speedskating because she didn't want to keep popping her eyeballs out of her head. Yet she came back to cycling.
"I think I really enjoy suffering for what I earn," she said. "I love the solitude of especially bike riding and bike racing. I enjoy it. I love riding my bike. It's like a moving meditation. It's a beautiful thing."
Beautiful, but also, as she said, "terrifying."
Hughes has had a couple of bad crashes, including one in May at the Gatineau Grand Prix. She went to the hospital supposedly as a precaution to make sure she hadn't broken her back. But as she revealed Wednesday, she had broken her back. She just didn't say anything because she didn’t want to answer questions. She said she has risked her life for this sport, and she doesn't feel good about it, because the risk really isn't worth it. Still, it didn't stop her.
She made it to London. She marvelled at an idealistic teammate in the Olympic Village before the Opening Ceremony, tearing up as she talked about what the Games meant – world peace, coming together in the spirit of competition.
"To see that, and to see it bring out something in a young person, the true sense of the Olympic movement that is so completely lost in everything the Olympics are now, the next generation has it, so I find that beautiful," Hughes said. "I have always been in awe of that, because I found that in myself."
She made it to – and through – her events. She didn't crash in the road race, when the course was narrow, packed with fans and slick with rain. She was impressive in the time trial, riding fast and smooth, hurting so good.
"I mean, it felt good – good in the sense of, it felt like hell, because it's a time trial and it's 38 minutes of suffering," Hughes said. "But in the sense of what my effort was, I suffered, and that means it was a good race."
She didn't make it to the podium, but she made it somewhere else.
"When I look at everything I went through to get to this race today, I can say I'm a better person," Hughes said. "I'm a smarter person, and I'm a more open person with more depth. This process has brought me to a better level as a human being, and that's what I'm really grateful for."
Where will it bring her next? First, she wanted to have a beer with her husband Wednesday night and soak up her last Olympic experience. She will finish this cycling season. After that, she'll see.
She likes the idea of riding her bike without pain, and there are so many other things she wants to do. You can bet she will remain involved with the Olympics, and she will continue her charity work, because she says sports saved her life and she wants to help give kids "that opportunity to transcend suffering."
Not long after her last race, Hughes was asked how she wanted to be remembered as an Olympian. At first, she said she didn't know, deflecting the question. Then came a long pause – and no mention of medals.
"I guess maybe that I did things usually with a smile," she said. "I think I can win with a smile and I can lose with a smile as well, because I never … You know, I never fail in emptying myself in what I do. I never fail in approaching what I do in the best way. So that's what I'm most satisfied with. I really hope that people will remember the way I did what I did – not what I did, but the way at which I did it."
We will, Clara. You have not suffered in vain.