‘How are you going to give back?’ Olympian Clara Hughes asks graduates

Clara Hughes speaking

Clara Hughes speakingClara Hughes has won an extraordinary number of medals as an Olympic athlete. She is the only athlete in the world to win medals in both winter and summer Olympic Games in two different sports.

Clara Hughes

Hughes, who was at York University last Wednesday to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree, told graduates of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Faculty of Health, Osgoode Hall Law School and the Schulich School of Business, that in spite of her rise to fame, she struggled with depression and motivation. Her remarkable athletic success had little meaning until she encountered an organization devoted giving children the world over the right to play.

“As a young athlete, I thought it was all about succeeding, about coming back to Canada with Olympic medals around my neck,” she said. “I thought I was going to be somebody with those decorations.”

After returning from her first Olympics with two bronze medals, she struggled with depression and motivation. “I came back and months later, I found myself in a state of depression, not knowing how I was going to continue, not only in sport but also in life,” said Hughes. “Those medals meant nothing to me because they did not have substance.”

She began to gain an understanding of her role as an Olympian during her travels to sporting events as a representative of Canada. “Representing this great country of ours, I heard all the thanks from people around the world. They were not thanking me personally, but thanking the national team and Canadians for the work we have done.”

Canadians, said Hughes, have made an enormous difference in the communities, countries and lives of many of the world’s peoples. Still she struggled. “I learned this as a young athlete, but I could not figure out how to make it my own, how to take this and give meaning to what I did.”

Those first Olympics where she had so much success did not really give her much of anything, said Hughes. “It was not until I reached the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy did I really become an Olympian and that was because I finally figured out how I was going to give back, to take any success that I had and give them meaning.”

She found that meaning at an information booth in the athletes’ village that was hosted by the charitable organization, Right to Play. “Right to Play offers programs that work around the world. They offer children in the most devastated and poor places a chance to grow and live the dream of sport,” said Hughes. “I connected to these programs and as I moved through the Olympics, I found that I not only wanted to win but that I was going to win because I wanted to give more kids a chance.”

The morning of her race, she turned on the television to find a CBC documentary on Right to Play. “I saw the programs in action. I saw the transformation of struggle and sorrow into joy,” she said. “I saw it in the eyes of children from Uganda where the play programs were being documented. It was then that I knew that I could overcome whatever challenges there were in the race ahead of me.

“I went out that night and skated the race of my life and won the Olympics not for myself but for every kid who would never know the chance to learn the joy of sport and play, of learning and growth,” she said.

After winning the gold medal, Hughes said she returned to Canada and donated the savings in her bank account to right to play. “I felt that I had finally lived up to what it meant to be to be an Olympian and a Canadian. That is what allowed me to continue for two more Olympics because I was able to give back,” she said.

She urged the graduates to use their expertise and training to give back. “My question to you is: How are you going to give back to your community, to the people around you, to this country and to the world? No matter what success you have, no matter what kind of car you drive or home you have, it will mean nothing if you don’t find a way to share it with others.”

In closing, she shared a story she learned from a woman she met during her travels. “We are born as a vessel, which is empty at birth. We spend our lives filling this vessel with knowledge, experience, friendship, love and with meaning. We get to a point in our lives when that vessel starts overflowing and we start to share with everyone around you. Your vessels are filling up and I can’t wait for them to spill over.”

York University’s convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view Hughes’ convocation address, visit the Convocation website.