Clara Hughes feels not one pang to return to the speedskating oval.
Even watching a former rival the same age as her win races does not tempt Canada’s most decorated Olympian into donning the skates with the long blades again.
“I could train right now and in four months I could be in fast skating shape. Do I want to? No,” Hughes said Saturday at the Olympic Oval in Calgary.
“It no longer has the meaning at the level it needs to for me. You’ve got to know when to stop. It’s not a good reason to do something just because you are good at it and can win. To me, that’s not enough. It has to have a deeper level than that.”
Claudia Pechstein, the woman Hughes beat to win Olympic gold in the 5,000 metres in 2006, continues to race. The 41-year-old German took gold in the 3,000 metres at the World Cup in Calgary and is a contender in Sunday’s 5,000.
But Hughes, also 41, has firmly closed the door on an Olympic career highlighted by four speedskating medals, including her gold, plus a pair of bronze medals in road cycling.
She became the sixth speedskater to have a massive mural of her unveiled on the Oval wall. Hughes spent 10 years of her life skating circles there.
“As a speedskater, it doesn’t get much better than having your picture on the wall on the fastest ice on earth beside Catriona Le May Doan, Susan Auch, Kevin Crockatt, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Kristina Groves,” Hughes said.
“For me, it’s another indication that it’s really the end, that I’m never going back to competition. I’m totally OK with that.”
Her mural isn’t of her golden race in Turin, but of her bronze-medal effort four years later at the Richmond Oval in 2010. Hughes wouldn’t have it any other way and says that was the last time she had speedskates on her feet.
“A race I’ll never forget, skating at home, skating the race of my life technically. It was beautiful poetry in motion,” she recalled. “The movement was what I dreamed it to be that day, so I’m happy that it’s from that race.”
Hughes, Groves and Cindy Klassen were the stars of the women’s long-track team from 2002 to 2010, when a Canadian standing on World Cup and world championship podiums was a regular occurrence.
Training alongside those three women at the Oval, Christine Nesbitt was able to develop under the radar into an Olympic gold medallist in 2010.
Hughes and Groves have retired since 2010. Klassen continued to race and is currently sidelined with a concussion, but Klassen also hasn’t stood on the podium as often as she did pre-2010.
Without her mentors, Nesbitt now shoulders much of the expectations for Canada’s long-track team heading into the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“I’ve definitely felt a bit of pressure with that and a bit of frustration too,” Nesbitt said. “We lost a lot of veterans after the Vancouver Olympics.
“I was winning medals back then, but I also had so many peers on the team who were also bringing home medals. The pressure was kind of distributed throughout the team.”
Canada was shut out of the medals on the second day of World Cup racing Saturday. The men’s pursuit team was fourth. Nesbitt, from London, Ont., was seventh in the women’s 1,500 metres.
While she won Olympic gold in the 1,000, Nesbitt feels she’s capable of winning an Olympic medal in the longer distance in Sochi.
When she trained with Hughes, Nesbitt recalled thinking that the older skater was harsh because Hughes was intense and demanding.
Now the 28-year-old Nesbitt discovers she’s become the stern, elder stateswoman for her younger teammates.
“She was so focused and determined and if you were out of line, she’d tell you,” Nesbitt said. “She showed me when I was coming up through the ranks what it was to be focused and determined because you’re there to do a job and be the best you can be.
“I want to be the best, so I have to take that responsibility and I know I’m setting a good example for a lot of the girls on the team.
“At first, I think a lot of the girls were intimidated by how focused and how seriously I take training and competing, but I think as they improve they’re starting to get it. That’s what you need to achieve your potential.”
Hughes continues to be an off-ice counsellor for Nesbitt on how to lead a team in what is an individual sport.
“It’s a time of change in speed skating,” Hughes said. “We’re not going to see the medals that Canada is used to in long track. It’s not going to happen in Sochi.
“Over the next decade the sport has to rebuild and it’s in that rebuilding process. Christine is a part of that for sure, but she’s a part of keeping it going because she’s so successful.”
The Canadian team had one medal — a bronze from Edmonton’s Jamie Gregg in the men’s 500 metres — heading into the final day of racing Sunday.
A pair of world records fell Saturday. The Netherlands broke their own record in the men’s team pursuit with a time of three minutes 37.17 seconds. The Dutch held the previous record of 3:37.80 set in Salt Lake City in 2007.
Sang-Hwa Lee of South Korea bettered her own record in the women’s 500 metres with a time of 36.74 seconds. She erased her previous mark of 36.80 she’d set in Calgary on Jan. 20 at the world sprint championship.
The 24-year-old from Seoul, who is coached by Canada’s Crockatt, won her second 500 metres in as many days.
Shani Davis of the U.S. won the men’s 1,000 metres. The reigning Olympic champion’s time was one minute 7.46 seconds, just over a second off his own world record. Gregg was seventh in 1:07.95. Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., was 11th.
Regina’s William Dutton suffered a pair of lacerations in his right leg when he crashed in a turn. He said he intends to race Sunday despite a dozen stitches in his leg.
Gold and silver in the women’s 1,500 went to the Dutch with Lotte Van Beek winning in a time of 1:52.95 and teammate Ireen Wuest .35 back.
Nesbitt’s time was 1:55.18. Regina’s Kali Christ was 15th and Winnipeg’s Brittany Schussler finished 19th.
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