Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes ’09 did not want to let one accomplishment at the age of 16 define her for the rest of her life.
Drawing a crowd of about 50 at a Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon, Hughes — the 2002 Olympic champion in figure skating — opened up about her childhood as a figure skater, the overnight fame that came with her Olympic success and her journey to build a new life away from the ice. Hughes currently works with a non-profit called the Women’s Sports Foundation where she aims to emphasize the link between an active lifestyle and academic success. She enrolled in Yale shortly after the 2002 Olympics ended and said she valued education throughout her career and hoped to make a fresh start upon arriving on campus.
“I was on the cover of Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Wheaties boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans,” Hughes said. “I could have kept doing that, but I wanted the space to grow as person and learn to think for myself.”
Hughes started figure skating at the age of three, following in the footsteps of her father and two older brothers who played hockey, she said. By age five, she added, she was skating in front of crowds of 20,000 people, eventually performing in ice shows across France and Switzerland during the summer she was eight. As a junior in high school, she won her Olympic gold medal, defeating more well known names such as Michelle Kwan and Russian World Champion Irina Slutskaya.
She said when she watches videos of herself at the 2002 Olympics, she realizes that the timing of her win worked well by allowing her to leave figure skating to further her education.
“I remember exactly every moment,” she said. “I paid extra attention because I knew I wouldn’t be back.”
At Yale, she stayed out of the public eye, she said, adding that she appreciated the “personal” experience associated with her residential college life in Timothy Dwight College.
After graduating with a degree in American Studies, Hughes has worked with several non-profit organizations such as the Women’s Sports Foundation and Figure Skating in Harlem. She added that she makes frequent trips to the nation’s capital to speak with policy makers to advocate for issues concerning female involvement in sports such as Title IX.
Hughes said she has found a high correlation between female leadership in the corporate world and early participation in sports.
“If you look at any of the women Fortune 500 CEOs, all of them played sports as a child,” Hughes said.
JE Master Penelope Laurans, who was close to Hughes during her Yale years, said she is not surprised by Hughes’ choice to enter a career in philanthropy, because she always “had a hunger to do good in the world.”
Other attendees said they were impressed by Hughes’ accomplishments both on and off the ice.
Michael Fischer, a computer science professor and president of the Yale Figure Skating Club, said he has noticed a division between Yale’s athletic and academic cultures and was impressed by Hughes’s ability to bridge that gap.
Liza Lebedov ’16 said she enjoyed the talk because she paid close attention to the 2002 Olympics and remembers Hughes’ win.
Hughes was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in January 2010.