Jen Henderson is a journalist breaking news in the capital region. She is a staff reporter at the St. Albert Gazette and  covers provincial and federal politics, crime and court. 

Hughes woos crowds in St. Albert

Hughes woos crowds in St. Albert

Olympian and mental health advocate Clara Hughes stopped by St. Albert to inspire young students and advocate for mental health awareness.

Leo Nickerson Elementary School and Paul Kane High School played host on Friday to Hughes, who spoke to students about the Olympics, her memoir and her advocacy after retirement from sport.

Three Grade 11 students at Paul Kane were able to guide the conversation with Hughes in a question and answer style presentation on behalf of their grade after having read her memoir.

“Its something I’m never going to forget,” 16-year-old Jacob Pasalic, one of the three moderators, said. “She’s so approachable. It was really easy to talk to her. She made us feel like we were just one of her buddies.”

The conversation focused around the struggles Hughes faced when she was a teenager and she reflected back on her rebellious days before she began speed skating. The students asked her about her history with addiction and mental illness, as well as the moment she was inspired to become a speed skater.

Much of the inspiration from Hughes comes from her own story. The Olympian was a troubled teen who was preoccupied with drinking and smoking. She was inspired to become a speed skater at 16 years old, after seeing Gaétan Boucher at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Hughes went on to transform herself into a top tier athlete, competing in both the summer and winter games in cycling and speed skating.

Despite her accomplishments, she continued to struggle with addiction and mental illness. Hughes says she tries to open up about her struggles to students to let them know that they are not alone in the challenges they face.

As the Bell Let’s Talk spokesperson, she wants to bring awareness to mental health issues that affect one in five Canadians. Hughes hopes to help reduce the stigma around mental illness to encourage Canadians to reach out for support.

Moderator Seth Van Berkel said he learned a message of perseverance from her story and Valerie Moore was inspired to continue down the path of advocacy and community service.

“To persevere and go to others if you are feeling down and troubled,” Van Berkel said. “To go to others, talk to others, and encourage them too.”

Along with speaking about her mental health issues, the six-time Olympic medallist talked about her triumphs on the podium and hoped to inspire the students to achieve their own dreams. Part of Hughes’ mission is to help students find their voice to advocate for issues that they feel are important to them.

“I think the big thing is ‘why not me’,” Hughes said. “Anything you can do in life, anything you think you want to try to do — why not me? Why can’t I try? Every one of us has that chance.”

Hughes was brought to St. Albert by Nicole Imgrund, the founder and director at River’s Edge Counselling Centre. Imgrund said Hughes exceeded all of their expectations.

After speaking with the students, Hughes made a presentation in the evening at the Arden Theatre and took questions from the audience. She was so impressed with St. Albert’s advocacy in mental health awareness that she donated $1,000 towards the three mental health initiatives that received proceeds from the event — SAIF, BAM and Outloud.

After speaking for an hour and taking questions, the Olympian stayed until after midnight signing books and speaking to audience members who had come to meet her.

“I was in awe watching her through those hours,” Imgrund said. “She took time with every single person. She lit up, she smiled and she listened like it was the first person in line.”

Hughes said the message that she wants everybody to walk away with is to continue to open up the conversation around mental health.

“Educate yourself to know what is available in your community so when someone asks to reach out to you, you can say ‘this is where you can get help’,” Hughes said. “It’s not perfect but this is where you can start.”

Students get a history lesson on compassion

Students get a history lesson on compassion

Q and A with St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud

Q and A with St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud