Olympian Clara Hughes comes North

Olympian Clara Hughes won't be doing much riding in Whitehorse during her cross-Canada bike tour. But she hopes Yukoners will forgive her.

Olympian Clara Hughes won’t be doing much riding in Whitehorse during her cross-Canada bike tour.

But she hopes Yukoners will forgive her.

After all, she’ll have just finished riding the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson City.

“I don’t think we’re doing a ride (in Whitehorse). I don’t know if we’re going to be able to walk at that point,” she said last week on the phone from Iqaluit.

A six-time Olympic medalist in cycling and speed skating, Hughes is the only athlete to win multiple medals in both the summer and winter games.

But now she is putting her athletic prowess to use for something other than gathering Olympic hardware.

Hughes is in the middle of travelling across the country on a 110-day national bicycle tour. Eventually she’ll go through every province and territory. The trek began in Toronto on March 14 and is scheduled to wrap up on Canada Day in Ottawa.

She will be in the Yukon from May 11 to 15.

The goal of the trip, dubbed Clara’s Big Ride, is to get Canadians talking about mental illness and the stigma that can come with it, she said.

Hughes herself has been very public about her own battle with depression.

“A lot of people saw me racing in the Olympics so many times over and winning Olympic medals. But not a lot of people know the struggle that I went through personally with depression and also my family history of mental illness,” she said.

The trip along the Dempster won’t be Hughes’s first. She and her husband Peter first made the journey in 2002.

The duo will be doing it together again this time.

Hughes said she wanted to travel on as many northern roads as possible.

“If we’re going to do the North we’ve got to show respect and ride a significant chunk of road real estate, and what better place than the Dempster?” she asked.

After flying from Dawson to Whitehorse, Hughes will be at a welcome event at the airport on May 12 at 4:10 p.m.

On May 14 there is a rally at Shipyards Park at 11:50 a.m. and a barbecue and concert at the Mount McIntyre recreation centre at 5:30 p.m.

It’s the community events, where people will get a chance to speak about mental illness, that are the most important, Hughes said. “The riding is just to get us from point A to point B.”

In the North, the struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness can be exacerbated by location, she said.

“There’s so many struggles, and very big realities especially in the winter with the lack of sunlight, but also the isolation in the communities,” she said. “I know many of the communities are struggling and suffering and losing a lot of young lives to suicide. “

Hearing northern stories firsthand is important, she said.

“There are people who are having great impact and I’ve seen it in many of the small communities and been totally inspired by what people are doing locally.”

Sharing stories and experiences is an important step in reducing the stigma that can come with mental illness.

“Nobody is immune to mental illness. If it doesn’t affect you directly, it affects you through a friend or a family member, somebody very close to you,” she said.

“It connects us all… Once we can accept it and share it with each other I think it can lift everybody up and make us so much stronger.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at