by Shara JJ Cooper on Monday May 26 2014
The reception for Clara Hughes, as she rode into Grand Forks, was nothing less than enthusiastic. Posters were up and school children were waiting for Hughes to make her way across the Boundary as well as crowd and full bleachers in front of Gyro Park.
Hughes left Osoyoos Friday morning and rode her bike across the Boundary as part of her Clara’s Big Ride tour. The tour is part of Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign and is aimed at raising awareness about mental illness.
The Olympian suffered from depression before getting help and finding her way through. She went on to win six Olympic medals -- tied with Cindy Klassen for the most medals won by a Canadian -- and to become the only person in the world to have won multiple medals at both winter and summer games. Her events are long track speed skating and cycling.
Hughes cruised into Grand Forks around 3:30, about an hour after she was tentatively expected to appear.
“I’m sorry we’re late, we were on our bikes,” she joked, before ducking onto her bus to change her clothes and refuel.
As the crowd waited, Grand Forks’ Deb Cozza spoke about her own personal history with mental illness.
Cozza shared how she battled her own mental illness and the ignorance and anger her family inflected on her because she sought out help outside of the family. She said they followed traditional beliefs that it should be swept under the rug so the family wasn’t embarrassed.
“I was devastated. They didn’t want to find out, or anyone else to find out that they have a crazy sister. The phone calls from them were devastating and they really set back my healing,” she said, explaining that she slowly learned how to set boundaries, but her family still approached her angrily saying she destroyed their families and friendships. Her parents even came to the hospital, demanding to know why she had disappeared and why she made the decision to heal because it was destroying their relationships and business.
“And that fence still stands 17 years later,” said Cozza, of the distance between her and her family.
She went on to tell the audience that she has heard the statements about her being crazy, that people should watch out for her.
“All of these years I still feel the stigma of mental health,” she said.
Cozza said that after she started to get stronger, she decided to open a small, home-based business with the support of her family. But when she wrote the business plan, she shared her history and was told by business advisors to keep that part of her past hidden.
“I was hurt, but I was also in a place where I said to myself ‘no more hiding’ it’s time to speak out, even if my bead shop grows slower than I want it to, sometimes you just have to challenge the past. So with my husband beside me, I decided to speak out and turn my mess, into my message,” she said. “And that is that mental health has to come out of the closet.”
After Cozza spoke, Mayor Brian Taylor spoke to the crowd, saying he felt that Grand Forks is a community that supports mental health issues.
Before Hughes came back to the crowd, Derek Forgie, emcee for Hughes’ tour, said “The number one fear of most people on the face of planet is public speaking, never mind coming in front of your community and talking about something deeply personal. That was unbelievable. That was so impression.” He called for another round of applause for Cozza.
Hughes came out of the bus and spoke to the crowd, saying their enthusiasm was impressive and that she could feel the support for this ride.
It was the 71st day of the tour and Hughes and her crew were tired, having ridden 6,400 km since March.
“It’s been about community. Letting people find out what’s going on in your community. Letting people know that they are not alone. Letting people know that people struggle. It’s part of being human,” she said, adding that they should celebrate being human.
Hughes shared her day with the crowd, saying she spoke at a school in Osoyoos in the morning before riding through the Boundary. Children cheered her on from their schoolyards along the way, truckers blew their horns and when they stopped at the Deadwood Junction in Greenwood, they were given a tray of cinnamon rolls – something the crowd happily cheered about.
One shy child in the crowd asked Forgie to ask Hughes if she saw the signs she had helped make. To which Hughes replied that she had and that she kept feeling like she was already there because of all the signs.
“As soon as we got down that hill, we felt like we were home,” she said.
Before Hughes finished talking, she told the crowd that the statistics for mental health were that one in five people would be affected. However, in Nanaimo, someone told her it was one in one because everyone is affected either directly or indirectly. Hughes said she believed that was true, that mental health affects everyone and that her sister struggles with bi-polar disorder and her father has struggled his whole life with mental illness.
“I got through depression only by getting help and accepting help,” she said.
At the end of her talk, Hughes signed a blue bike that will stay in Grand Forks and then posed for pictures with the crowd, adding that she doesn’t have time to mingle with the crowd in every community, but that she was happy they had time to do it in Grand Forks.