VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Speed skater Clara Hughes, the only Canadian to win medals at both the Summer and Winter Games, has been selected to carry her country’s flag into the opening ceremony for next month’s 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
The announcement highlighted the unveiling of the largest ever Canadian Winter Games team on Friday, with the 206 athletes set an ambitious target of putting the host nation on top of the medals table.
A five-time Olympian with five medals, Hughes will defend the 5,000 meters title she won at the Turin Games, where she also took a silver in the team pursuit.
The 37-year-old Winnipeg native was also a bronze medalist in the 5,000m at the 2002 at Salt Lake City Olympics and won bronze medals in cycling’s road race and time trial at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.
Only four athletes have both Summer and Winter Olympic medals in their trophy cases.
Hughes, who speaks both of Canada’s official languages English and French, is equally admired for her humanitarian work as her athletic accomplishments, donating $10,000 to the Right to Play organization after her gold medal victory in Turin.
“To all of Canada this is our time,” a beaming Hughes told a large crowd of media following the official announcement made at City Hall in Richmond, B.C., not far from the speed skating oval where she will try to add to her medal total.
“This is without a doubt the greatest honor of my sporting life. For 20 years I’ve had the privilege of representing Canada around the globe, first on the bike and then on my blades the experiences have shaped me into who I am today,” she added.
“I am so honored to lead this Canadian Olympic team.”
While carrying your nation’s flag at an Olympic opening ceremony is considered one of sport’s greatest honors, it is often one athletes have not always embraced.
Hughes removed her name from consideration in Turin because she was recovering from illness and wanted to focus her energy on the upcoming competition.
The decision drew the wrath of some commentators but this time Hughes did not hesitate, saying it was the highlight of her athletic career.
“I really didn’t feel I had a choice,” Hughes said. “Deep inside instinctually I knew if I was asked I would say yes because this is really a chance of a lifetime.”
The opening ceremonies, the first for a Winter Games to be staged indoors, are scheduled for February 12 when Hughes will lead a team into BC Place that hopefully will include the athlete expected give Canada an historic first gold medal.
Twice before Canada has hosted Olympics, the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988 but have yet to celebrate a gold medal victory on home soil.
Editing by John O'Brien