For most athletes, the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games is the crowning moment of their careers—the stuff of dreams for trainees who spend years toiling on the rinks or fields.
Lifelong figure skater Emily A. Hughes ’11 was no exception: “I don’t think I was really thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to the Olympics,’” she says of her time skating in middle and high school. “It was more of a, ‘Oh, I dream to go to the Olympics’—and then when it actually happened, it was just amazing.”
In 2006, Hughes was called to Torino, Italy to compete in the Winter Olympics, where she placed seventh overall. Hughes—then a junior in high school—had previously been named as an alternate for the event after winning the bronze medal at the 2006 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
With several national championship performances and an Olympic appearance under her belt—not to mention the co-authorship of “I Am a Skater”—Hughes by no means resembles the typical Harvard undergraduate. But for all her athletic accomplishments, she says that skating has not compromised her devotion to education—a decision that she made at an early age.
“I didn’t want to take time off of high school or college just to skate,” says Hughes, now a junior at Harvard. “Having that balance, I think, made skating better for me and made school better for me, because it wasn’t just all skating or all school.”
ROAD TO 2010
Despite her desire to strike the perfect balance between school and skating, Hughes decided to take a leave of absence from Harvard last semester to train to qualify for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She knew she needed to dedicate more time to skating to compete at the Olympic level again, Hughes says.
“I either had to take some time off of school and compete, or not compete and go to school,” she says. “I think that was one of the first times that it was either-or.”
Indeed, prior to her decision to leave Harvard, Hughes had made consistent efforts to perform her duties as a student and an athlete without sacrificing either—a balancing act that most Olympic-level skaters do not even attempt, she says.
“I think that a lot of people questioned it, but I never did,” Hughes says. “I’ve always seen myself going to college, so that was never an option. Harvard is just a great place, so trying to balance the two made sense to me.”
During her freshman and sophomore years, Hughes scheduled her classes in the morning or afternoon to make time for training sessions at a rink in Acton, Mass. and the Skating Club of Boston. Hughes skated a few hours each day, worked regularly with a trainer, and exercised multiple days a week on her own, supplementing her training with Pilates and yoga, according to Elin G. Schran, Hughes’ Boston-based coach.
“Usually, people who are skating at her level eat, breathe, and sleep their sport,” Schran says. “For her to be getting off the ice and have to go to class was crazy—it’s completely unheard of.”
And Hughes’s skating commitments often went beyond the extracurricular involvements of even the most dedicated of her classmates at Harvard, according to Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ‘67, Hughes’ freshman advisor.
“There are all sorts of stars in the class, people who are doing things on a regional or a national or an international level,” he said. “The skating regimen is pretty relentless...I think what was required of her was pretty unusual.”
But Hughes could not let the possibility of participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics slip past her. Blockmate Claire M Wheeler ’11 remembers sitting with Hughes on their futon in Mather at 3:30 in the morning last March, when the skater was deciding whether she should give the Olympics one more try.