Clara Hughes remarkable effort in the fight against mental health to include cross-country ride

One of the first Canadian female athletes to openly talk about mental health, two-sport star Clara Hughes is a tremendous and positive inspiration. As a spokesperson for Bell and their annual Let’s Talk campaign (launched in 2011), she is spreading an empowering message in a remarkable cross-country effort.

The fourth annual campaign, held on January 28, 2014, was highlighted by a special skate hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association at Clara Hughes Recreational Park in Winnipeg. As the campaign involves Bell making a five cent donation towards mental health initiatives for every text, phone call and Facebook share on January 28, 2014, Hughes impact has been integral towards its success. In 2013, a total of 92 million tweets, calls and texts were generated.

Appearing on the set of CTV News (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/ClaraHughes_)

Appearing on the set of CTV News (Image obtained from: https://twitter.com/ClaraHughes_)

Following in the footsteps of other remarkable women such as Ashley Gilbank (who rollerbladed for mental health) and Angella Goran (who cycled for the environment), who ventured cross country, Hughes shall participate in a cross-country big ride across Canada. Promoted as Clara’s Big Ride, the heroic campaign begins on March 14, 2014 in Toronto. Having trained for the last six months, she shall be joined by her husband Peter Guzman on the trip.

The native of Winnipeg was one of those rare and special athletes that had the unique distinction of being the only Canadian athlete to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Games for Canada. As a cyclist and a speed skater, she has cemented as one of Canada’s greatest athletes.

Despite such heroic accomplishments, Hughes had her own battles with depression as a younger athlete. Since the London 2012 Summer Games was her swan song, she has focused on helping to eradicate existing stigmas surrounding mental health. It was the inspiration of a doctor at the London 2012 games that provided her with the inspiration to start getting better. Coach Eric Van den Eynde was another positive influence.

With one of four Canadians suffering from some type of mental illness, she is also working with youngsters and teenagers, sharing her story, hoping that they shall be the generation to bring about positive change.

January 28, 2014: Taking part in the ceremonial face-off at Air Canada Centre prior to the Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning match. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and Lightning captain Martin St. Louis join Hughes at centre ice (Photo credit: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

January 28, 2014: Taking part in the ceremonial face-off at Air Canada Centre prior to the Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning match. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and Lightning captain Martin St. Louis join Hughes at centre ice (Photo credit: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

Scheduled to take 110 days, there will also be 82 community champions. These champions shall help organize welcoming committees for Hughes when she makes stops in the designated areas on the ride. With the goal of helping to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental illness, there is no question that Hughes shall receive a warm welcome throught the vast Canadian landscape.

Map of Clara Hughes journey (Map route obtained from: http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/claras-big-ride/ )

Map of Clara Hughes journey (Map route obtained from: http://letstalk.bell.ca/en/claras-big-ride/ )

Venturing eastbound into sections of Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada, the next leg of her journey takes her through Northern Quebec and northwest across Canada’s three territories: Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon.

An ambitious part of the trek shall include crossing the Arctic Circle on the legendary Dempster Highway. From there, she will head towards Vancouver Island and travel the roads of the Prairies, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The final leg of the journey comes through Northern Ontario before the epic cross-country ride for mental health awareness reaches its magical ending on Canada Day, July 1, 2014, in the nation’s capital of Ottawa.

Speaking with Order of Hockey in Canada recipient on Hockey Night in Canada while donning the Do It for Daron jersey (Still obtained from: YouTube)

Speaking with Order of Hockey in Canada recipient on Hockey Night in Canada while donning the Do It for Daron jersey (Still obtained from: YouTube)

It is only fitting that Hughes courageous journey reaches its end in Ottawa. Ironically, Goran and Gilbank currently reside in Ottawa. Another strong connection to Ottawa is with the noble Do It for Daron fund. Honoring the life of the late Daron Richardson, DIFD works towards mental health research while also participating in fund raising events. Gilbank’s cross-country cause (called Skate4Life) named DIFD as its beneficiary.

Of note, Hughes had the opportunity to participate in the Ottawa Senators’ contest in 2011 which helped raise funds for DIFD. Not only did she participate in the ceremonial puck drop, she got to meet Daron’s mother, Stephanie, who is highly active in the cause. When Hughes won the 2011 Chrono Gatineau bike race (located across the river from Ottawa), not only did she wear purple (the official color of DIFD), but she dedicated the win to Daron’s memory.

With DIFD having touched the hearts of so many in Ottawa, it has certainly endeared Hughes and her humanitarian efforts to many of the capital’s residents. The courage of Hughes has not only made her a role model to Canadians but a positive influence in those struggling with mental health. For every life that her message of hope has inspired, it sets a positive example which can help to do more than potentially save a life, but inspire and empower it to excel and engage.

10 Female Athletes that made an inspiring impact in 2013

In alphabetical order, please find ten female athletes that helped to make a tremendous impact in 2013, while advancing the already amazing world of female sport.

Angella Goran, Cycling

Cycling across Canada in hopes of raising funds for wildlife research, she channeled the spirit of other Canadians who have ventured on the road in similar efforts; Terry Fox, Rick Hansen and Ashley Gilbank. Looking to preserve Canada’s natural legacy while looking to educate and provide various education activities on her stops, Goran is a role model to both men and women who have undertaken environmental causes.

Emma Green-Tregaro, Track and Field

While the 2013 IAAF World Track and Field Championships were a lightning rod for controversy due to issues of gay rights, Emma Green-Tregaro made a remarkable statement. Painting her fingernails in the colors of the rainbow as a gesture of support, it made worldwide news. While she was inititally warned it could be in violation of the code of conduct of the world championships, she stood her ground, inspiring men and women of any sexual preference to stand up for their beliefs.

Brittany Griner, Basketball

From the NCAA to NBA Draft speculation to the WNBA, Brittany Griner made national news on numerous stages. While her NCAA career at Baylor did not end on with a Final Four, she graduated as the all-time leading blocker among both male and female basketball players.

Speculation about the NBA Draft sparked rumors that she would become the first female selected. Although it never materialized, she would go first overall to the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WNBA Draft. Her debut against the Chicago Sky (which featured second pick overall Elena Delle Donne) featured two slam dunks, the first player to do so in their WNBA debut.

Sami Grisafe, Football

One of the most inspiring sporting stories of 2013 (among men and women), football quarterback Sami Grisafe finished her storied football career in grand style. Having led the United States to a gold medal at the inaugural 2010 IFAF Women’s World Football Championships, she followed it up as the field general for the US in 2013.

Her world gold would be followed up by a remarkable performance with the Chicago Force in the 2013 WFA postseason. Leading her club to their first-ever WFA National Championship, it was a fitting finish to Grisafe’s stellar career. Tackling the next role in her life, a promising musical career, her performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the IFAF Worlds and at Wrigley Field are pulse-pounding.

Brooke Henderson, Golf

Only 16 years old, Brooke Henderson may become the Tiger Woods of women’s golf. A teen phenom who was recognized as Canada’s amateur golfer of the year for 2013, she was also featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd segment. Ranked number nine in the world among amateur female golfers, she would place third at the professional Canadian Women’s Open while placing 35 at the LPGA’s Manulife Classic.

Nikki Johnson, Football

One of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of women’s indoor football, Nikki Johnson used her star power to try and improve working conditions in her league. A former intern with NFL Films and a high school sporting legend in Nevada, her solid work ethic and leadership skills set a positive example for teammate and rival alike.

While her requests for health insurance and a more equitable setting in the league resulted in her untimely dismissal, her efforts are similar to Curt Flood in baseball and Ted Lindsay in hockey. Although she will likely return to the WFA (where she first honed her skills), Johnson is a strong, courageous woman whose principles make her a symbol of admiration and determination.

Hilary Knight, Ice Hockey

While Amanda Kessel had an outstanding 2013, in which she won the Patty Kazmaier Award and led the Minnesota Golden Gophers to an undefeated season, Hilary Knight was playing in the ultra-competitive CWHL against some of Canada’s greatest women’s ice hockey players.

With such sterling competition, Knight not only ranked third in league scoring (first among US-born women), but she would become the first American-born player to capture the CWHL’s MVP Award. She would follow it up by leading all players in postseason scoring as the Blades upset the Montreal Stars to capture the Clarkson Cup. A few weeks later, Knight (and Kessel) would beat Canada on their own home ice to capture gold at the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships. Featured on a trading card in the Topps Sochi Winter Games trading card set, her star is on the rise.

Yekaterina Pashkevich, Ice Hockey

A former women’s tackle football competitor in the IWFL, Yekaterina Pashkevich emerged as the feel-good story of the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championships. An original member of the Russian national team from 1993, she lived in Boston for several years after the 2006 Torino Winter Games. Making a comeback in hockey, Pashkevitch would capture the hearts and minds of fans 20 years later. As the oldest competitor at the 2013 IIHF Worlds, her acumen and leadership contributed to an emotional bronze medal for the Russian squad.

Winter Venecki, Running

In honor of her fallen father, Winter Venecki and her mother participated in marathons on every continent in the world. Looking to raise funds for cancer research, Venecki’s journey was one of inspiration and hope. Having established her own cause to raise funds, the teenaged Venecki is a great example of the great contributions youth can make to our society.

Serena Williams, Tennis

In a season that saw Williams amass an outstanding win-loss record of 78-4, she solidified her legacy as the greatest female tennis player ever. Her earnings of over $12,000,000 are the highest-ever in women’s tennis history and the fifth highest among both male and female players.

Honorable Mention: Christmas Abbott, NASCAR

As the first female full-time member of a NASCAR racing crew, Christmas Abbott is shattering barriers in traditionally male-dominated fields. Serving with the Michael Waltrip Racing Team, she is a proud member of Clint Bowyer’s pit crew. Able to change two tires weighting 60 pounds each, she paid her dues changing tires for female racer Jennifer Jo Cobb in years past. When not part of the pit crew, Abbott is also a competitor with Team CrossFitInvoke in the CrossFit Mid-Atlantic region.

Honorable Mention: Julie Paetsch, Football and Ice Hockey

One of the most influential women in Canadian sport for 2013, Julie Paetsch helped make history on two different occasions. Competing on defense with the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, she returned from an injury in-time for the WWCFL title game. Helping the Valkyries to a victory over the Lethbridge Steel, the Valkyries became the first team to win three consecutive WWCFL titles. Of note, she would earn Defensive Player of the Game honors.

A few weeks later, she would contribute to Canada’s silver medal effort at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds. Recognized as Canada’s Player of the Game in the gold medal match against the United States, it would prove to be the beginning of a memorable summer. In late August, she would be selected by the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 Canadian Women’s Hockey League Draft, becoming the first women’s tackle football player taken in CWHL Draft history. In addition, she would score a goal in her debut for the Inferno.

Honorable Mention: Whitney Zelee, Football

Having helped the Boston Militia to a national championship in 2011, Whitney Zelee has emerged as a key member for the WFA franchise. While she has been working tirelessly to help the squad claim a second, her mark on WFA and women’s football history reached unforeseen heights in 2013. As the first player to log 2,000 yards in one season of women’s football, Zelee became a legend in the sport. With several performances of 300+ yards in several matches, her efforts shed a new light on the excitement of women’s football and the growing relevance of the sport.

Teenage runner Winter Venecki covers the world to honor her father

At the tender age of nine, Winter Venecki started to compete in Olympic-distance triathlons. The motivation was spurred by the loss of her father to prostate cancer in 2009. In an effort to help generate awareness about the disease, it has brought her to all four corners of the globe.

Her mark on women’s sporting history was made at the age of 14. As the youngest person, male or female, to complete a marathon on all seven continents, she has garnered significant media attention for her athletic efforts. Perhaps more significant was the fact that her mother joined her throughout the journey.

Currently a sophomore in high school, the journey towards immortality began in the summer of 2012. With the participation of her mother, Dawn, the two completed their first race in a 26.2 mile trek in Eugene, Oregon.

It would serve as the launching pad for a global journey that brought both mother and daughter to locations as exotic as Kenya, Peru, New Zealand and Greece, to remote places such as Mongolia and Antarctica.

Having established a nonprofit organization, Team Winter, proceeds of $400,000 have been raised. It is another remarkable example of women challenging themselves and pushing their limits in outstanding efforts to raise funds for causes close to their hearts. In 2012, Ashley Gilbank rollerbladed across Canada for mental health research. One year later, Angella Goran also crossed the Canadian landscape in an effort to raise funds for the environment.

Amazing Angella Goran going green with Bike for Wildlife

One of the most amazing sporting stories of 2013 is Angella Goran’s cycling journey across Canada. Called Bike for Wildlife, her remarkable ride began in August 2013. Starting in Victoria, British Columbia, her goal is to reach Halifax, Nova Scotia as a means of gaining awareness for the Canadian Wildlife Federation and the need to preserve our ecological legacy for future generations.

Her story is reminiscent of another amazing woman who underwent her own cross-country expedition; Ashley Gilbank. In 2012, Gilbank skated across Canada in hopes of raising funds for mental health awareness. Known as Skate4Life, she skated westbound, reaching Victoria in October. The Do It for Daron fund based out of Ottawa was a key beneficiary of her remarkable efforts.

With an athletic background spanning 15 years in disciplines such as rowing, cycling and triathlon, Goran was prepared to undertake this trying yet rewarding endeavor. In addition, she is also a Certified Top Level indoor cycling instructor along with being a Strength and Conditioning Trainer. Her compassion can also be attributed to the fact that she is a Lifestyle Coach, who sincerely wants to see others reach their potential.

As a triathlete, Goran has earned a pair of first place finishes in the 2009 Somersault Triathlon Series. During the 2010 edition of the series, she would earn one third place finish and two second place nods. At the Worlds Long Course Triathlon in Immenstadt, Germany, she completed the demanding 4 km swim, 130 km bike ride and 30 km run in a time of 9:57:34.

Goran is more than just an athlete, but an entrepreneur, a pillar in her community and an inspiration for women who want to accomplish their dreams. Having started an apparel line called 4Life Lifestyle, she is also the founder of the Ottawa-based Cyclepathic Indoor Cycling Studio (in the Ottawa Sports Performance Centre). It was an interest of hers to create a business venture that shared the positive impact that sport can have.

Motivated to help preserve Canada’s ecological legacy by connecting nature to sport, Goran discovered a labor of love. With the objective to inspire those through values such as education and belief, she is a remarkable individual proving that one person truly can make a difference.

As the athletic ambassador for the Canadian Wildlife Federation (of note, world traveller Ken Beattie and ocean racer Damian Foxall are also CWF athlete ambassadors), her 6,000 km trek across Canada helps to celebrate the remarkable and captivating landscapes and the diversity of wildlife that call it home. Sponsors have included lead sponsor Burnbrae Farms, Johnson Insurance Inc., Just Green Lifestyle (ensuring a carbon neutral bike ride), ESKA Waters, Robert Bateman Centre, Sportstats and Primo Trailer Sales. Such support makes Goran’s journey a true team effort as she works tirelessly on her journey to have a positive impact on others and the land they live on.

Throughout the journey, Goran is making over 50 stops, as she will speak to camps, schools and various communities about Bike for Wildlife. Of note, once Goran reached Toronto on the leg of her trip, she even had the opportunity to appear on a Canadian talk show known as The Social. When her journey reached the Nation’s Capital on Thanksgiving Day, she had the opportunity to run into a pair of world class athletes that supported her worthy cause; world class kayaker Kristin Gauthier and hockey player Katie Weatherston, a gold medalist at the 2006 Torino Winter Games.

Kristin Gauthier (left) and Katie Weatherston (right) welcome Goran to Ottawa. (Image obtained from Twitter)

Kristin Gauthier (left) and Katie Weatherston (right) welcome Goran to Ottawa. (Image obtained from Twitter)

With the effort of the CWF, the message is to inspire those to conserve Canada’s natural legacy, while educating youth on getting outdoors and understanding the importance of the species and their spaces. Programs that the CWF has supported include Little Brown Bat, the North Atlantic Right Whale and the Woodland Caribou, to name a few.

As this heroic journey is scheduled to conclude on October 30, 2013, Goran is worthy of serious consideration for the Lou Marsh Award (awarded to Canada’s best athlete). Her journey encompasses the qualities that defines Canada; perseverance, love of nature, pride and friendship.