Clara Hughes burst onto the scene at the 1996 Summer Olympics when she won a pair of bronze medals. She switched to speed skating, won a gold medal in 2006 and will be competing in her third Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Medals? She has medals from the Summer and Winter Olympics, gold, silver and bronze. She has world championship marks in two sports, a Commonwealth Games title, national recognition; she's even an Officer of the Order of Canada.
But there's something about Clara Hughes that goes beyond all her tangible triumphs. It's who she is, what she believes in and how she goes about her business in all its many forms. This is a woman for all seasons and reasons; an athlete who excels as an activist, motivational speaker and world citizen.
Most of us know Ms. Hughes from her 5,000-metre speed skating win at the 2006 Turin Olympics. Already a two-time Olympic medalist in cycling, Ms. Hughes circled the Italian oval on her long blades looking like the most shocked person in the building after she realized she'd finished first. It was her unabashed joy that made her moment so memorable. She rejoiced and so did anyone who watched her.
The not-so-public moments have been equally stirring, in some ways more so. Moved by U.S. speed skater Joey Cheek, who donated his gold medal bonus cheque to the athlete-based humanitarian organization Right To Play, Ms. Hughes went one better. She donated $10,000 of her own money. Then she challenged companies and other Canadians to do the same, which they did to the tune of $400,000. Then she travelled abroad to see how the money was being used. She went to Ethiopia, Ghana, the Middle East, and along the way, she got involved in the program and enjoyed playing with the children she was keen to help.
Not bad for someone who spends her sporting life going in circles.
"I want to stay connected to humanity and contribute to the human condition and try to make it a little better," she said in a recent interview. "I feel as an athlete I have an incredible platform to try and make a difference for people."
Ms. Hughes lives and breathes her desire to make a difference. When she's not training or travelling about, she speaks to groups and at seminars, inspiring others to chase their dreams and to do their part. If Ms. Hughes' trademark smile doesn't get to people then her boundless energy does. As we've become painfully aware, this is the era of the fallen athlete, the scorned and the flawed. We've had drug cheats and liars, felons and fools aplenty, and their self-indulgent behaviour has been a pox upon sports. It's almost to the point now where the concept "athlete as role model" is as outdated as Jean Beliveau's tube skates or Nancy Greene's first skis.
Ms. Hughes has never clamoured for the role-model crown. She's simply stood up for what she felt was right and gone about trying to make it better. It's been her way for more than a decade. If she wins a medal, she has always enhanced its value by doing something meaningful, something that makes you proud to say, "She's one of ours."
Allan Maki is a sports columnist for The Globe and Mail.