Clara's Big Ride crosses the finish line
Josh Elliott, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, July 1, 2014 12:01PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, July 1, 2014 7:53PM EDT
After a 110-day, 11,000-kilometre bike ride across Canada to promote mental health awareness, Clara Hughes rolled up to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to complete Clara's Big Ride for Bell Let's Talk on Tuesday.
Hughes completed the final 70-km leg of her cross-country ride late Tuesday morning, after riding from Arnprior, Ont. to the nation's capital. It was the end of a journey that saw her ride through rain, snow, biting cold and intense heat to promote mental health in communities across Canada.
Hughes rode her bike onto the Canada Day stage on Tuesday and addressed a Parliament Hill crowd that included Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She said she was proud of her ride across the country to promote conversation around mental health issues, and called it a "joy" to represent her country from coast-to-coast-to-coast.
"We connect by joy," she said. "It is the fuel that allows you to move mountains and take on nations and win gold medals."
Hughes, a former competitive cyclist and speed-skater, won six medals for Canada during her career as a Summer and Winter Olympic athlete. She retired in 2010 after the Vancouver Games, where she represented Canada in long-track speedskating and served as the country's flag bearer.
The 41-year-old from Winnipeg, Man. has struggled with depression throughout her life, and now campaigns to fight the stigma of mental illness. She started Clara's Big Ride last year as the national spokeswoman for Bell Let's Talk.
"I have seen Canada through the eyes of the one-in-five Canadians who are affected by mental illness," she said. "That has been the fuel that inspired and ignited every single kilometre of the way by bicycle."
Speaking at a news conference following Canada Day festivities in Ottawa, Hughes said now that the race is over, she is “relieved, happy, and proud – all at once.”
“It was exhausting, emotionally and physically, but it was the ride of my life,” she told reporters.
Hughes said she’s hopes everyone who connected with Clara’s Big Ride “can have a better sense” of how many people struggle with mental illness in their lifetime.
The Olympian also said while she was inspired by the stories she heard in communities, her heart also “broke into a million pieces” when she met people who were suffering in silence, or those who had lost loved ones due to mental illness.
“We have a long way to go, but I want Canadians to know … and be inspired after this ride, that we all have a role to play in erasing the stigma,” Hughes said. “And it is possible and it starts with every single one of us.”
Hughes started her journey on a cold day in Toronto on March 14, and cycled across the country, stopping to promote mental health awareness in more than 100 communities as far east as St. John's, N.L. and as far north as Inuvik, NWT. Her trek led her through Atlantic Canada, across the northern territories, down through British Columbia, across the Canadian Prairie provinces and back through Ontario on her way to Parliament Hill.
Fellow speedskating star Christine Nesbitt joined Hughes in the mental health discussion this year, opening up about her own battle with depression. "My struggle was a couple years ago," she told CTV News last week. "It's still something that I'm working through, but I'm strong enough now to share it. It was the right time."
On Monday, Governor General David Johnston presented Hughes with the Meritorious Service Medal for her efforts.
Bell Canada CEO George A. Cope praised Hughes for her "truly epic journey" in a statement on Tuesday.
"We thank Clara for being such a tireless spokesperson for Bell Let's Talk and the mental health cause, and congratulate her on her truly inspiring and successful journey," Cope wrote.
"We are not done," Hughes told the Parliament Hill crowd. Hughes said her goal is to achieve a "stigma-free Canada" for those who suffer from mental health.
"We can do it together," she said.
With files from CTV Ottawa