Before six-time Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes took her first step on the ice at the Bay Arena in Bay Roberts, she paused to speak to a group of contest winners on the home bench.
It was the second last stop on Clara’s Big Ride for Bell Let’s Talk tour in Newfoundland before heading to Labrador.
She chatted for only a moment before addressing the some 400 people in attendance.
Hughes leaned in, a big smile etched on her face, and gave a hug to a young woman sat at the end of the bench — 17-year-old Harbour Grace native Rebekah Peddle. The senior high essay contest winner, Peddle sat stoically as Hughes spoke for 25-plus minutes of her battles with depression and how sport saved her life.
As she speaks, Peddle never stops watching Hughes. It was as if the pair shared a connection that goes beyond speaker and audience.
“Having her hug me and tell me it will get better, it was amazing. It’s like she understands,” said Peddle.
In a way, Peddle’s story mirrors the one told by the Olympian.
Two years prior at the age of 15, Peddle was diagnosed with depression. Much like Hughes, who at 24 and just off a pair of medals in cycling at the 1996 Summer Oympics in Atlanta, found herself battling the illness.
At first, the shy Carbonear Collegiate student did not know how to express herself in dealing with the mental illness and at the age of 16 her depression became severe. That’s when she started talking and writing about what she was feeling.
“(Writing) is a really good outlet,” she said.
Peddle found putting her feelings on paper helped her gain a better understanding of what she was going through.
“You might be able to make it better,” she said.
The therapy she found in writing, and influence from Clara, is what led Peddle to put pen to paper
“Hearing her story, and relating it to mine is why I wrote the essay,” said Peddle.
She is the daughter of Rodney and Christine Peddle of Harbour Grace.
Peddle wrote her essay from a first-person perspective. She wanted to give a real depiction of what it feels like to suffer with depression in the community. With it, she gives a voice to the youth in the region.
Peddle shows that you do not have to live in a big centre in order to be dealing with mental illness. It is something she sees her fellow students deal with every day.
“If you walk through the halls, or even the streets, you can see children with scars on their wrists and their throats,” Peddle said.
Her words touched Hughes.
“When I read your essay about what mental health means to a teenager, I related to it so much because I didn’t know who to turn to with the feelings I had inside,” said Hughes. “I didn’t know if I could ask for help and I thought if I did somebody would make me feel bad.”
The big ride
Clara’s Big Ride is a 110-day journey across Canada to raise awareness for mental health and to get Canadians engaged and helping end the stigma around the issue.
It is safe to say Hughes may be one of the finest and most successful athletes produced in this country, and she feels this has given her the opportunity to embark on this journey.
In Bay Roberts, she was greeted by many signs from businesses welcoming her to the community.
“(The ride) is about raising awareness, raising the conversation and really normalizing the reality that every single Canadian is connected to mental health,” she said. “I am somebody who struggled in my life with depression. I have a sister, to this day, who struggles with bi-polar disorder and I have a father who struggled with addiction and mental health his whole life.”
It’s been an arduous journey for Hughes so far. She has logged some 5,000 kilometres since March 14 and has ridden in some unforgiving conditions.
“Everything I did in sport led me to have this opportunity,” said Hughes. “The biggest opportunity I’ve had in my life was to have the chance to talk about going through depression.”
Light at the end
Hughes is also the spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, which to date has raised some $5.4 million for mental health awareness.
“Reading the essay by Rebekah gave me so much insight into what a teenager is feeling, what they are doing with it and that’s part of the message that we’re going to bring to Ottawa on Canada Day,” she said. “We have a long way to go when it comes to proper resources, access to resources and care for all Canadians, but I feel it starts with all of us.
“It is something that is going to change.”
At the end of the event, Rebekah was given back her essay. However, there was a special message written on the cover from Hughes.
“That actually meant a lot,” she said.