Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes just wishes there were more roads to cycle on P.E.I.
That’s what the athlete and mental health advocate said to the nearly 100 supporters that gave her a warm greeting after a cold and rainy bike ride from Summerside to Charlottetown Saturday.
“When we left Dieppe yesterday morning my husband was talking to someone at the school we were at and he said ‘you know, everyone is just so nice here in New Brunswick we don’t want to leave’. The New Brunswicker said ‘oh wait until you get to P.E.I. they’re even nicer’,” Hughes told the crowd in front of Founders Hall Saturday. “And you guys have not let us down its been an absolute joy to be here, first in Summerside and now in Charlottetown.”
Hughes, who has won four Olympic medals for speed skating and two for cycling, arrived in the province Friday for Clara’s Big Ride, which is part of the Bell Let’s Talk initiative.
The initiative promotes Canadian mental health with an anti-stigma campaign and funding for community care, research and workplace.
Hughes is now 3,200 km into the full 12,000 km trek and has seen less than positive weather but an ecstatic reception.
Saturday’s 67 km trek from Summerside to Charlottetown was no different, as Hughes saw a lot of support as she fought through wind and rain.
“But it was so awesome and what made it great was having so many people honk, wave and lean out of their cars to show their support. This isn’t an Olympic sport, this is about mental health,” said Hughes. “We know we can’t give up because if we do, that means this struggle will be given up. And on the bike, the struggle is nothing compared to what people are suffering.”
“ If this ride represents anything I hope it can represent tenacity and just that willingness to make every single pedal stroke, every single foot in front of the other, better than the last.”
Jim Richards, director of Clara’s Big Ride, said the Let’s Talk initiative began four years ago as a way to address a need for leadership and dialogue about mental health and mental illness.
It began as an annual fundraiser once a year, which Richards said has raised more than $68 million to anti-stigma programs, research, facilities, and most importantly community endeavors.
“Because when it comes right down to it, what we’re learning is that mental health depends on the people with their feet on the ground. The people who are working in the small towns and communities to help those in need,” he said.
Hughes trek includes more than 260 community events and she has been a spokesperson for Let’s Talk since it began, shortly after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
She said while much of the country was connected in joy during those Olympics, she had asked to be part of the campaign because she had another side of the human spectrum to share.
That side is the one experienced by those suffering with mental illness, she said.
“The struggle for me was a period in my life as a young athlete where I went through a period of depression. I have a family history of mental illness,” she said. “After that (the Olympics) I thought it was only the joy that connected us and I realized the struggle is more profound because that is something that every single person knows. The joy is so fleeting and the struggle is what I think brings us together.
“I left the Olympics feeling like ‘I have to do more’ and I wanted to bring this message and this conversation to every corner of Canada.”
Hughes first-hand struggle with mental illness has also been an inspiration to many, which was evident by the amount of supporters on hand Saturday.
Kaye Larkin of Cornwall was one who had waited in the rain to see Hughes, who she described as precious.
“I think she has helped so many people already by coming out and letting us know (she struggled with mental illness). We knew she was a good athlete but now that she’s had mental illness and defeated it,” said Larkin. “She’s trying to awaken others to at least come forward, it doesn’t hurt to come forward.”
Hughes participated in community events in Summerside and Charlottetown and will be taking part in the Canadian Mental Health Association spring gala at the Delta Prince Edward Saturday evening.
She will also be giving a talk to Colonel Gray High School students on Monday before leaving the province for Truro, N.S.
Clara’s Big Ride will finish on Canada Day at Parliament Hill in Ottawa.