For six-time Canadian Olympic medalist Clara Hughes, the ride of her life is nearing its end.
She arrived in Sault Ste. Marie Tuesday on day 103 of a 110-day cycling tour across Canada that aims to raise awareness of mental health issues.
In conjunction with the Bell Let's Talk campaign, Clara's Big Ride has so far traveled 10,300 kms by bike, a ride she says has been as exhilarating and inspiring as it has been exhausting.
No stranger to mental health issues, Hughes struggles with depression, as does her sister as well as her father who passed away last summer.
"This whole ride has been all about community," Hughes told the large gathering of supporters at the Bondar Pavilion Tuesday evening. "The hardest part about this ride is when we have to leave. The connection and sharing of struggle and hearing of other people's struggles has let me know that I'm not alone and I know that it's done the same for so many people. It means so much to me."
And although the journey has pushed her physical and emotional limitations far more than anything she attempted in the world of sports, she sees positive change happening and vows to finish the ride.
"It's definitely brought me to new limits of exhaustion, but in the best of ways. It's been the most meaningful thing I've ever had the chance to try to do in my life," Hughes said.
"I'm not willing to give up on this idea that we can actually shift this wall of stigma that is stopping people from getting help… that's stopping a person from thinking that they have the right to treatment… that they're not sick, they're just weak. That's what people are made to feel and it's wrong and it needs to stop."
Since she began Clara's Big Ride on March 14 of this year, she's met more than 55,000 people and will have cycled 12,000 kms through 95 communities by the time she reaches the campaign's conclusion on July 1 in Ottawa.
Along the way, Hughes has spoken to and seen a number of mental health representatives and facilities, and sees progress in dispelling the stigma associated with metal health issues.
But she continues to see understaffed facilities, exhausted mental health workers, and programming shortfalls across the country.
"On many levels we have so much better that we need to be," she said. "But you have to start somewhere, and I believe that awareness is the beginning of people using their voice to make sure that change is made on the political scale."
Tuesday night's celebration at the Bondar Pavilion included a welcome address from Mayor Debbie Amaroso and a special presentation to a young local Clara's Big Ride fundraiser.
Eleven-year-old Avery McMillan contributed $600 to the cause that she raised by accepting donations in place of birthday presents on her last birthday, organizing a yoga day at her school, collecting donations at an area yard sale, and selling Mr. Freezes.
Hughes invited the young lady to join her on stage to present her with a special Clara's Big Ride jersey after draping all six Olympic medals around her neck.
Hughes continues on her ride on June 26 as she heads to Blind River, followed by stops in Sudbury, North Bay, Deep River, and Arnprior before wrapping up the campaign in Ottawa on Canada Day.
For more information about Clara's Big Ride, please click here