But perhaps the most surprising thing Canadian Olympic speedskating champion Catriona Le May Doan brought back from a recent trip to Ethiopia is a memory of how happy the people were.
"A few people asked me, 'Is it what you expected?'" she says of the trip, on behalf of the Christian Children's Fund of Canada.
"I don't know if I knew what to expect. The thing that really blew me away is in this area, where they have nothing . . . they have joy. . You feel safe, you feel invited, you feel welcome."
And she noticed the stark contrast when she returned.
"You come back here in our 'we have everything' world, we're so smart, we do everything right, and yet we're so unhappy."
There is some empirical evidence to back her impressions.
The latest "hope" survey by the Gallup International Association put two African countries at the top of the optimist scale — Nigeria and Ghana — and African nations in general dominated the positive thinker side of things.
The survey didn't include any results from Ethiopia but Canada was well down on the pessimist side, in a tie with the United States and Russia. Conducted every year since 1977, it asks people whether they think the next year will be better or worse and whether they think they will be better off.
Le May Doan suggests Canadians could do with a little bit of an attitude shift.
"We need to really figure life out. We think we have it and we don't."
On the ice a decade ago, Le May Doan certainly had it. The five-foot-seven native of Saskatoon with legs of steel won two Olympic gold medals in the 500 metres and a bronze in the 1,000. She was world sprint champion in 1998 and 2002 and held the world title in the 500 in 1998, 1999, and 2001.
That's only a partial list but she says life after speedskating has been pretty spectacular as well.
At 41, the mother of two is enjoying the time she spends with her children, particularly now that they're more active — her daughter is 7 1/2 and her son almost five.
"My daughter is in her second year of ringette. I actually played ringette before I speedskated and now I'm an assistant coach with her team and I'm playing ringette — pickup three mornings a week and I'm sparing for one of the Calgary teams."
And even though she was once hailed as the fastest woman in the world on ice, ringette lets her stretch her skating legs a little more than speedskating, which is always done counterclockwise with only left turns.
"For the first time in 30 years I can do a right legged crossover."
She remains active on various sports boards, a new career she started when she joined the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee.
"It was an eye opener . . . Talk about being thrown in."
Her husband Bart has taken on a new career as well. After 17 years at the Calgary speedskating oval he has become a firefighter in the city.
"When you change careers at 44, I'm pretty impressed by that," she says.
Le May Doan also will continue her broadcasting career with CTV at this summer's Olympics in London.
"I'll be a host at the desk, which I've never done before."
But she says she also looks forward to continuing her work with the Christian Children's Fund, an organization she originally knew only as a sponsor. One of the children she supported grew old enough to move out of the sponsorship program but Doan still supports two.
It was a case of credit-card fraud that changed all that. She had to notify the organization of her new account numbers, explain what had happened and that started a conversation that led to the trip.
She got to visit both the children she sponsors when she was in Ethiopia as well as see the various projects donors are funding.
"I would like to go back whenever I can. Whether that's in a year or a year-and-a-half or two years.
"I was inspired by it. Now that I've been there and met the kids and I've seen these projects started, I want to see how they're evolving."Suggest a correction