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Clara Hughes Celebrates Five More Years of Bell Let’s Talk

“Being a champion is not just about winning,” says six-time Olympic medalist Clara Hughes. Believing that actions off the track define us as much as those on it, Hughes inspires people toward success in all areas of their lives. Her candid, personal talks range from how she believes sports can change lives to her struggle with depression—fully embodying the idea that each of us can overcome challenges to become the champions we’re meant to be. On the heels of releasing her new memoir, Open Heart, Open Mind, Clara has also just celebrated five years as the spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk’s campaign to help end the stigma against mental illness. The next Bell Let’s Talk Day is January 27, 2016. CTV explains more, below:

Movement has always been a part of Clara Hughes’ healing process.

When depression has threatened to envelop the six-time Olympic medallist, she has sought solace on her bike, on the ice, or most recently hiking.

The 42-year-old is the spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk Day, and a tireless advocate for mental health awareness. But Hughes, who arrived home a few weeks ago from her part-solo 139-day hike of the Appalachian Trail, admits she’s not out of the woods yet.

And the release of her book “Open Heart, Open Mind” earlier this month has been like a tidal wave of old wounds.

“It definitely was one thing to write a book, and then to talk about what’s in that book, and I have to say, I definitely underestimated how hard this was going to be,” Hughes said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of just really personal issues I have struggled with over the years and experiences over the years, familial and in the sporting world that I still am trying to understand, and it’s been really traumatic, it’s been really, really hard.

“It makes me realize that I still have a lot of healing that I need to do and I have a long way to go in my own mental health.”

Hughes was speaking Tuesday as Bell marked the fifth year anniversary of Let’s Talk Day by announcing another five-year commitment to the program. Bell has also doubled its health funding commitment to $100 million.

Hughes is very open about the depression she long kept hidden behind that well-known smile. Writing the book has also forced her to deal with “a pretty major eating disorder” that plagued her through a decade as a cyclist.

“It’s something I’ve never talked about and something that still lives within me to this day because I haven’t gotten help for it,” she said. “And I put that in the book because so many women struggle with body image issues, and I just felt like maybe if I could share these things it will help. But I don’t even know how to talk about them.

“And talking about my father and his struggle with alcohol and the impact that had on our family life. . . that has been extremely difficult. I don’t have any regrets, but it’s been really hard.”

Hughes, who is the only athlete in the world to win medals at both the summer and winter Olympics, also revealed in her book that she was suspended for three months in 1994 for testing positive for ephedrine, a stimulant that can also be found in some cold medications. Hughes wrote that the doping violation was intentionally kept quiet.

“I know that it’s up to the reader or the person that’s reading the headline, they’re going to make their own opinion on it,” Hughes said. “Anybody that’s put (her particular case) in context will understand that it’s very different than other cases in the last 21 years.

“And it was part of my truth, it’s part of my history, I served a three-month suspension for it, and if I say I’m being honest in this book, I have to be honest about myself as well,” she said. “And it’s a relief that it’s in there because it’s something that I carried for 21 years, something really difficult that I still don’t understand, but I had to put it in there, and I have no regrets with it.”

The release of her book came a few weeks after she arrived home from her hike, a 3,500-kilometre trek that’s featured in the movie “A Walk in the Woods.” Hughes’ husband Peter, an avid outdoorsman, accompanied her on the first third of the hike and then left her to finish the final 2,000 kilometres alone.

“He really wanted me to experience it alone,” Hughes said. “He said ‘you need to go and realize how much you know, and you can be self-contained.’ It was really scary at first being alone, but then I realized all these skills that I have, and I was so proud, like ‘I’ve got my stuff together, I can do this.’

“A lot of people were like ‘Aren’t you afraid of animals?’ I’m like ‘I’m afraid of people, not animals,”‘ she added, laughing. “I met nothing but amazing people, it’s just an awesome community and all the trail towns, everybody knows that when you’re basically a dirtbag, you smell, you’re dirty and you have your backpack, you’re hiking the AT, and people are like ‘How can I help?’

“It’s a great experience overall.”

Bell Let’s Talk Days have seen almost half a billion messages sent over the last five years, and the program has funded more than 600 partner organizations in the mental health movement across Canada.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is Jan. 27.

CTV/September, 2015