Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
We like to think that we know Clara Hughes. As one of Canada’s top athletes, she’s become a symbol of strength and patriotism, and since the 90s she’s been practically synonymous with the Olympics. She’s opened up the conversation around mental illness, and her iconic smile is recognized across the country. However, as is often the case with public figures, we’ve only seen a piece of Hughes’ life.
Open Heart, Open Mind allows Canadians to begin to understand the woman behind that iconic smile. Hughes’ memoir takes us through the times we’ve seen her on television, when she’s won medals and become a national celebrity, and then explores her personal history that led up to those moments. The book is rooted in Hughes’ racing career, both as a cyclist and speed skater. It begins with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and then goes back to her childhood and delves into her early family life. Hughes speaks candidly about her unhappy home and her rebellious teenage years, and the ways in which sport gave her direction. She takes the reader through her continuous journey of training, racing, losing and winning, all of which came hand in hand with serious emotional struggles.
The book is not a lengthy memoir, and the story does skip certain details, particularly some specifics of her family life – however, as many of the people she writes about are still living, this is understandable. The writing has a straightforward, familiar tone to it. Hughes speaks openly about details of her life that the public has not been privy to, such as her struggles with food and alcohol, even as an Olympian.
As Hughes is the spokesperson for Let’s Talk, a national mental health awareness campaign, most Canadians have heard of her struggles with depression. Her memoir, however, provides a more nuanced picture of her internal journey, and examines how this is intertwined with her racing career. She describes the extreme physical exertion that she has put her body through as an elite athlete, and then delves into the intense connection between the physical and the emotional. This exploration of how the mental and physical affect one another is one of the most distinguishing features of this book.
It is precisely because this memoir provides an insight into her struggles that we are able to understand the true extent of Hughes’ abilities. Her memoir openly explores both mental and physical power, and therefore embodies strength in a way that few books are able to.
There is also something very special in being able to read about the moments that led up to Hughes’ biggest races. For those of us who have watched Hughes compete at the Olympics, it is thrilling to be able to follow the lead-up to these events, and to the celebratory finishes that were broadcasted across the country. These are moments that have been ingrained in our national conscience, and to relive them again alongside Hughes herself is nothing short of extraordinary.
By not shying away from the extremes of both joy and sadness, Hughes’ memoir gives us insight into an exceptional range of experience. The title Open Heart, Open Mind, encapsulates the passion and sincerity that is evident in Hughes’ voice. Her journey allows us to understand how success is given meaning because it often requires struggle, and that joy can be celebrated because we know its opposite.
For those of us who look to Clara Hughes for strength and inspiration, this book delivers.
Open Heart, Open Mind was published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.