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Life after gold: An Olympic champion reflects on her Yale years

Sarah Hughes 09 is no stranger to challenging expectations. At the age of 16, the figure skater competed at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, jumping over candidates Michael Kwan and Irina Slutskaya for the gold medal with an impeccable long program (which, at the time, was also the most challenging program in terms of Professional ever winning an Olympic gold medal). Since then, no American woman has won a gold medal in women’s figure skating.

After only a year and a half, Hughes attended Yale University and transferred to Timothy Dwight College. She has remained a prominent figure in the world of figure skating, taking two college degrees – first skating professionally with Stars on Ice, and one semester back, providing coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, for NBC and MSNBC. For Hughes, those games had another compelling draw: Her younger sister Emily was skating for the U.S. (she finished seventhy.)

Hughes went on to study law at the University of Pennsylvania, and now works as an attorney at Proskauer Rose LLP in New York City. She also serves as an ambassador and honorary trustee (having served on the Board of Trustees for six years) for the Women’s Sports Foundation, a non-profit organization working to advance the lives of women and girls through sport, education, and physical activity, as well as an ambassador for the Right to Play. This international organization empowers vulnerable children to overcome challenges through play. Now, as the Beijing Winter Olympics begin, she’ll once again meet world figure skater – and fellow figure skater Yali and 2022 Olympian Nathan Chen 24 – as a contributor to NBC and as a fan.

(In October, we spoke with Nathan Chen about balancing life at Yale with the pursuit of an Olympic gold medal.)

Hughes spoke to Yale News about winning the gold medal, her time in New Haven, and why Chen doesn’t need advice to go to these games. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did it feel to reach the Olympics at such a young age and win the gold medal in such a dramatic way?

Sarah Hughes: I’ve had a fairly rapid rise in the world of skating — I started skating when I was three, and have spent my entire life on the ice. But I didn’t win the national championship until 1998 at the junior level. It was exciting for me to be in a national championship and to see the skaters compete for spots on the Olympic team. I grew up watching these skaters on TV nonstop — any time there was skateboarding on TV, I’d watch it, I’d record it, I’d watch those tapes over and over again. And there was a lot of ice skating in the ’90s.

Then four years later I got third – we had three points for the women in Salt Lake. It was a great honor to represent the country and to be a part of the Olympic experience.

At the time, I thought Salt Lake would probably be my first Olympian, because most of my life at that point was training, with the ultimate goal of forming the Olympic team. I went to Salt Lake with the idea of ​​enjoying it – to get the most out of the experience, to have the best time, and to try to ski to the best of my ability.

There was an added layer at that time. I’m from New York; This was just five months after 9/11yAnd there was uncertainty about whether the Olympics would be held in the United States, so for me to be able to go out and snowboard for a lifetime, on the biggest stage in the sport, with all that we’ve just been through. The residents of York and as a state – and now with the United States hosting the Games – made everything even more intense.

At that point, did you already know that you wanted to retire from competitive skating and go to college?

Hughes: I knew I wanted to go to college and I think a lot of that was because, first, I wanted to make friends with other people my age who hadn’t spent their lives, so they focused on becoming a top athlete, and two, I’ve seen for myself the positive impact it can have. A college education has on your life and the ripple effect it can have on the generations of people who go to college. My parents met in college. My father was the first in his family to graduate from college, and my mother was the first woman in her family to do so. Many of my opportunities to pursue athletics came from the relationships and skills they developed in college, so I felt that going to college could help me develop similar skills for my future.

But right away, I wanted to go back to high school and have a more regular schedule in high school, because I was traveling all the time to compete. So that was what I thought I would do. But then, after I won, I became an overnight celebrity and got invited to do a lot of fun things, like applying at the Grammys. I was a huge fan of Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and Britney Spears, so when I had the chance to meet people I liked, I wanted to do that too, and I enjoyed doing fun things like that.

After that I was able to do meaningful work in education and healthcare. For example, with Campbell Soup, we created a scholarship that awarded $300,000 in scholarships and worked with the Labels for Education program. Education is something I have committed to, both in class and in life, and has made my life more meaningful and purposeful. I also partnered with General Electric, becoming the second of their two spokespersons. We created the GE Heroes for Health program, which focused on a wide range of health issues that have affected my life, including cancer care, women’s health issues, and healthy living for children.

But I knew college would help me develop skills that would make my work more impactful, and I really wanted to go to college with my classmates. And I felt that Yale University was the place to do that.

What made Yale the place for you?

Hughes: I felt very comfortable there. I liked the college system I didn’t have the typical high school experience of sitting in a class all day, every day because I was training and traveling a lot. I wanted to know that if I had questions, or if it was difficult to edit, I would have the resources to find help. Because I wanted to succeed as a college student, I wanted to make friends and I wanted to be able to keep going when it was tough. I knew that the best way for me to grow as a person and develop academically, to learn what I wanted to do on a professional level, was in a place where I felt comfortable asking for the help I would need. I didn’t know what help I would need, but I knew I would need some help.

And of course, when I got there, the students were great. So this was a big plus for Yale as well.

Once you’re at Yale, how do you balance being a student, an elite, and a well-known athlete?

Hughes: It was a difficult transition from the life I knew to being a college student. I think this is probably true for a lot of new students. Not necessarily that they’re elite athletes, competing internationally in a different country every month like I was, but to move from a routine and a place where you feel comfortable to suddenly live away from their family, from what they know, from the places they go to eat, from the classes they took – it’s an adjustment.

Now I’m not as well known as it was back then, but then it was very recent – I won when I was a kid in high school and then worked in the skateboarding and entertainment world until I started at Yale. I enjoyed being a student, but it was a difficult transition period.

How does skiing fit into your life as a Yale student?

Hughes: I skated quite a bit, but my focus at that point was on student life and life at Yale. I was really committed to getting the new student experience going to college with my classmates. I should point out that I took a vacation after the first year.

I’ve always wanted to skate in a show called Stars on Ice, since I was little, and I had the chance to do it after I won. So after the first year, she topped the Stars Tour on Ice. We started in Japan, then had 60 shows in the US. And in the summer after the first year, I went to Athens, Greece and worked as a reporter covering the Summer Olympics in Greece.

But the plan was always to go back to Yale University. After I covered the Olympics and starred in Stars on Ice, I went back to Yale for a semester. And then my sister made it to the Olympics, so I took another semester off. But I was determined to finish and get the Yale experience, to take the classes there, and be with the other students.

Another Yale student, Nathan Chen, will be competing in this Winter Olympics. Do you have any words of advice?

Hughes: When Nathan chose to go to Yale, I was very excited that Yale didn’t have a long line of top skaters choosing to go to school and train. I was actually choosing between Yale and Harvard, and Harvard had a few elite skaters, including Paul Wylie, who won the silver medal in men’s figure skating in 1992. Paul and I had a joking competition around the schools—and that’s how happy Nathan decided that He goes and throws the favor to Yale.

It’s great that Nathan stayed with Yale and seems to really like it and have a good experience. And I’m very happy for Yale because Nathan is a first-class individual. While he is one of the best sports ever, he is humble as a person, eager to learn, and respectful of others, so I imagine he would be a good teammate too. As a graduate, it is good to see the school and the students support a value system like this.

But back to your question: I don’t have advice for Nathan. He’s a three-time world champion and six-time national champion getting into this – he knows what he’s doing.

He’s an incredible skater, and it’s impressive that he was able to balance training across the country – because his training base and coach are in California – with being a student. It seems that he decided to take on this endeavor at Yale University, and continue to not only compete, but continue to dominate in competitions, superhuman.

I’ve watched all my life ice skating, and I have great appreciation for someone who does such challenging elements, raises the technical standards in the sport, and maintains their composure through it all. But even the people who watch the music once every four years tell me they are amazed at what he’s doing out there on the ice.

What are you looking forward to at the Olympics?

Hughes: Seeing these athletes realize their dreams. This is definitely a highlight.

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