Inspirational Hughes wins bronze in her final race

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."

Many sportswriters who are infinitely more versed in the Olympics and Hughes' career have written appreciations. The Toronto Star's Randy Starkman had an excellent one:

"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.

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