Hughes trades skates for a life
For her 18th birthday, which she celebrated last Friday, Sarah Hughes gave herself what she had missed most since becoming Olympic figure skating champ 15 months ago.
Peace of mind.
It came last week when she decided to attend Yale and spend her first year in New Haven, Conn., living on campus as a full-time student. She will find time to skate but, at least for next season, not invest the time needed to compete in Olympic-style events.
"I put so much pressure on myself this year it was unbelievable," Hughes said during a long telephone conversation Sunday. "It will be great to have the freedom to enjoy skating again."
There was pressure to keep competing. Pressure to meet even the limited contractual obligations Hughes took on as the spoils of her Olympic triumph. Pressure to pick a college where she could find a workable blend of academic and athletic life, harder than it sounds if the sport in question is not part of the school's athletic program.
Much of the pressure was internal, just like the drive to excel that had made her a top student and the Olympic champion. The source of the stress didn't make it easier to handle.
The personal impact of Hughes' dramatic Olympic victory in her own country was far greater than she imagined. It overwhelmed a young woman who confessed Sunday to feeling emotionally fragile and physically worn down most of the past year.
She somehow managed to hold herself together and finish second at the U.S. Championships in January before unraveling two months later at worlds, where she stumbled into sixth. She ended the season by finishing eighth in a field of eight at an invitational event April 8. Hughes has not been in a rink since and does not know when she will resume training.
"I don't look back and say I'm glad I competed last season," Hughes said. "I wasn't happy, and I didn't have a great experience.
"I had this idea that if I didn't keep competing, I would never compete again. No matter how I was feeling, no matter how unprepared I was, I thought I needed to be out there. Now I know that was ridiculous."
She saw how Elena Sokolova came back to finish second at worlds after four years of inability to make Russia's world team. She remembered that Katia Gordeeva of Russia had come back after three years as a show skater, during which she had a baby, to win a second Olympic pairs title six years after the first.
All this came to Hughes when she allowed herself some time away from the rink. It allowed her to spend more time in classes at Great Neck North High School, to visit Yale and Harvard three times before making a decision last week, to join friends at a movie without worrying about being tired at practice.
"I have always been frustrated that my in-class education was a little limited the past few years," she said. "I want to spend more time in school than I have. Most of all, though, I am glad I had time to reflect on where I have been and where I want to go."
For most high school seniors, even those with an academic record as good as Hughes', the college admissions process is pressure enough.
Some might find it hard to empathize with her having to pick among the likes of Harvard, Yale and Columbia. But I know of one brilliant and usually unflappable high school senior from the East Coast who was brought to tears by the prospect of having to choose between two elite universities.
"I wasn't prepared for what happened after the Olympics," Hughes said. "I was emotionally fragile from all the attention and sometimes I tend to feel things in extremes. Now I understand what I can do and what I can't do."
Some may wonder how an emotionally fragile person can win an Olympic title in front of 18,000 people, but the circumstances were different. Hughes, who admitted she always fatigued easily, went into the admissions maelstrom beaten down from having done four times more shows on the Champions on Ice tour than she had in the past. Appearances for sponsors came next. She never recovered her physical or emotional strength.
"You can never prepare for what might come to an Olympic champion and how a skater might handle celebrity," said her coach, Robin Wagner.
Hughes felt uncomfortable at being recognized while touring campuses and hoped that would not continue once she enrolled. She was reassured after seeing the ease with which the student who first showed her around Yale blended into the campus.
Hughes' guide? President Bush's daughter, Barbara.
She already has been assured of ice availability by Yale's rink manager and athletic director. She can walk to the rink in 10 minutes, a relief after several years of enduring a two-to-three hour round trip from her Long Island home to a rink in New Jersey. She plans to limit her public skating to a few shows.
Hughes hopes to stay with Wagner. They expect to talk this week about ways to continue their relationship. New Haven isn't too much farther than the rink in New Jersey from Wagner's home.
"We will work out something to accommodate her needs," Wagner said.
One of them, obviously, is to be an 18-year-old kid for a while.