Clara Hughes gave herself a great send-off.
The speedskater, who is more accomplished than any Canadian Olympian, won a bronze medal in her final race, the women's 5,000-meter speedskating. The 37-year-old emptied the tank to set a Richmond Oval record, 6:55.73, in the third-last pairing, before she was passed first by Germany's 21-year-old Stephanie Beckert and the Czech Republic's 22-year-old Martina Sáblíková, who took the gold.
Sportswriters in Canada have deified Hughes with reason — six medals, turned over her $10,000 bonus from Turin to Right To Play. True to form, when CTV asked her, "Can we consider you Canada's greatest athlete?" the six-time medalist replied, "No. I think Canada is full of incredible people in every realm. I consider myself just a Canadian."
This went beyond performance, even though it was a superb effort in an environment where the Canadians have struggled. As she put it: "Thanks again to this amazing crowd. You gave me wings."
"Of all the things I will miss about Clara Hughes, maybe the biggest — and this is a selfish one — might that she wrote your stories for you. Her quotes always came from the heart and she made it so easy — you only had to fill in some words in between and let her take over."
As Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun wrote prior to the race:
For her, it's about the moment. About coaxing more from your body and mind than you've ever coaxed before. A search for the perfect race.
Awards are simply the by-product of an excruciating, and at the same time beautiful, process.
Once in a while, you get a reminder how what makes an athlete great isn't always found by focusing on who's in first place.
Seeing Hughes skate a superb, flawless race was a little like watching Roy Halladay pitch a complete-game win for a mediocre Toronto Blue Jays in front of a half-empty Rogers Centre. Or maybe it was like seeing Ted Williams go out on a home run. Either way, you knew were seeing someone give a great exhibit of an athlete's craft.