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

Gold medal-winning Olympic figure skater Sarah Hughes ’09 discusses her life in sports, what drew her to Yale, and advice for fellow Olympian Nathan Chen.
Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes of the United States reacts after competing in the women's free skating program at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2002. Hughes won the gold medal in the event. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Sarah Hughes ’09 is no stranger to defying expectations. At 16, the figure skater competed at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, leaping over favorites Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya to take the gold medal with an impeccably poised long program (which, at the time, was also the most technically difficult program to ever win an Olympic gold medal). No American woman has brought home the gold in women’s figure skating since.

Only a year and a half later, Hughes matriculated at Yale and moved into Timothy Dwight College. She remained a prominent figure in the ice-skating world,  taking two undergraduate sabbaticals — first to skate professionally with Stars on Ice and, after one semester back, to provide 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 placed 7th.)

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 trustee emeritus (having served on the Board of Trustees for six years) for the Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance the lives of women and girls through sports, education, and physical activity, and as an ambassador for Right to Play. That international organization empowers vulnerable children to overcome challenges through play. Now, with the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, she’ll again be tuning into the world of figure skating — and of fellow Yalie and 2022 Olympian Nathan Chen ’24 —  both as an NBC contributor and as a fan.

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

Hughes spoke to Yale News about winning gold, her time in New Haven, and why Chen needs no advice going into this Games. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What was it like to get to the Olympics at such a young age, and to win gold in such a dramatic way?

Sarah Hughes: I had a fairly quick rise within the skating world — I started skating when I was three years old, I spent my whole life on the ice. But I hadn’t made the national championship until 1998, at the junior level. It was thrilling for me to be at a national championship and get to see the skaters compete for spots on the Olympic team. I grew up watching these skaters on TV nonstop — any time there was figure skating on TV, I was watching it, I was taping it, I was watching those tapes over and over. And there was a lot of skating on TV back in the ‘90s.

So then, four years later I secured the third spot — we had three spots for women at Salt Lake. It was a huge honor to represent the country and be part of the Olympic experience.

At the time, I thought Salt Lake probably would be my only Olympics, because so much of my life at that point was training, with the ultimate goal of making the Olympic team. I went to Salt Lake with the idea of soaking it in — to get the most out of the experience, have the best time, try to skate my best.

And there was an added layer at the time. I’m from New York; this was just five months after September 11th, and there was uncertainty whether the Olympics would even be held in the U.S. So for me to be able to go out and have the skate of a lifetime, on the biggest stage in the sport, with all that we had just been through as New Yorkers and as a country — and now with the U.S. hosting the Games — made everything that much 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, one, I wanted to make friends with other people my age who hadn’t spent their lives so focused on becoming an elite athlete, and two, I had seen firsthand the positive impact a college education can have on your life and the trickle-down effect it can have generationally for people who do go to college. My parents met in college. My dad was the first in his family to graduate from college, and my mom was the first woman in her family to do so. Many of my opportunities to pursue athletics came from relationships and skills they developed in college, so I felt going to college could help me develop similar skills for my future.

But more immediately, I wanted to go back to high school and have a more regular high school schedule, because I’d been traveling all the time competing. So that was what I thought I’d do. But then after I won, I became an overnight celebrity and was being invited do a lot of fun things, like presenting at the Grammys. I was a huge Backstreet Boys and NSYNC and Britney Spears fan, and so when I got the chance to meet people I admired, I wanted to do that too, and I enjoyed doing fun things like that.

And then I was able to do meaningful work in education and health care. For example, with Campbell Soup, we established a scholarship that awarded $300,000 in scholarships and I worked with their Labels for Education program. Education is something I've been committed to, both in the classroom and in life, and has made my life more meaningful and purposeful. I also partnered with General Electric, becoming the second of the two spokespeople they’ve ever had. We established the GE Heroes for Health program, which focused on a broad range of health issues that had touched 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 also really wanted to go to college with my peers. And I felt Yale was the right place to do so.

What made Yale the right place for you?

Hughes: I just felt comfortable there. I liked the college system. I didn't have a typical high school experience of sitting in a classroom all day, every day because I was also training and traveling a lot. I wanted to know that if I had questions, or if it was difficult adjustment for me, I would have the resources to find help. Because I wanted to succeed as a college student, and I wanted to make friends and I wanted to be able to stick with it when it was tough. I knew that the best way for me to be able to grow as a person and develop academically, to figure out what I wanted to do professionally, was at a place where I felt comfortable to ask for the help that I would need. I didn't know what help I would need, but I knew I would need some help.

And of course, then when I got there, the students were just terrific. So that was a huge plus for Yale as well.

Once you were at Yale, how did you balance being both a student and an elite and well-known athlete?

Hughes: It was a challenging transition to go from the life I knew to becoming a college student. I think that’s probably true for a lot of freshmen. Not necessarily that they’re an elite athlete, competing internationally in a different country every month like I was, but to go from a routine and a place that you’re comfortable with to suddenly be living away from their family, from what they know, from the places where they go to eat, from the classes that they took – it’s an adjustment.

Now I’m not as recognizable as then, but then it was pretty recent — I won when I was a junior in high school and then I worked in the skating and entertainment world until I started at Yale. I enjoyed being a student, but it was a challenging transition.

How did skating fit into your life as a Yale student?

Hughes: I skated a little bit, but my focus at that point was on student life and life at Yale. I was really committed to having the freshman experience of going to college with my peers. I should note that I did take a leave of absence after freshman year.

I’d always wanted to skate in a show called Stars on Ice, since I was young, and I had the opportunity to do so after I won. So after freshman year, I headlined the Stars on Ice tour. We started in Japan, and then we did 60 U.S. shows. And in the summer after freshman year, I went to Athens, Greece, and worked as a reporter, covering the Summer Olympic Games in Greece.

But the plan was always to come back to Yale. After I covered the Olympics and did Stars on Ice, I came back to Yale for a semester. And then my sister made the Olympics, so I took another semester off. But I was determined to finish and to have the Yale experience, to take the classes there, to 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 so excited because Yale hasn’t had a long line of elite figure skaters who choose to go to school and train. I actually was deciding between Yale and Harvard, and Harvard had had a few elite figure skaters, including Paul Wylie, who won the silver medal in men’s figure skating in 1992. Paul and I have a joking rivalry about the schools — and so I was happy Nathan decided to go and tip the favor towards Yale.

It’s awesome that Nathan has stayed with Yale and he seems to really like it and be having a good experience. And I’m very happy for Yale because Nathan is a first-class individual. While he is one of the best ever in his sport, he is also humble as a person, eager to learn, and respectful of others, so I imagine he’d be a good classmate too. As an alumna, it’s nice to see the school and students uphold a value system like that.

But back to your question: I do not have advice for Nathan. He’s a three-time world champion and six-time national champion going into this — he knows what he's doing.

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

I’ve watched figure skating my whole life, and have a huge appreciation for somebody who does such difficult elements, raises the technical bar in the sport, and keeps such composure during it all. But even people who tune in once every four years tell me they are just awestruck by what he’s doing out there on the ice.

What are you looking forward to at the Olympics?

Hughes: Seeing these athletes achieve their dreams. That’s definitely a highlight.

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