Thoughts from the Hughes sisters, Olympians and Ivy League grads, on challenges and rewards Nathan Chen would have as skater and student at Yale

Embed from Getty Images

Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic women's singles champion, is the most prominent U.S. figure skater to attend Yale.

Her younger sister, Emily, who finished seventh in singles at the 2006 Winter Olympics, went on to Harvard.

The big difference was Sarah’s competitive career had ended before she entered Yale, while Emily kept competing during her first three years at Harvard.

With 2018 men's singles world champion and Olympian Nathan Chen having been admitted to the Yale Class of 2022 and trying to decide whether he will matriculate for the 2018 fall semester, I asked Emily, 29, now a senior manager at Johnson & Johnson, for her thoughts on the demands of remaining a competitive skater while attending a university like Harvard or Yale and asked Sarah, 32, who is to graduate in May from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, for general observations on her Yale experience and the challenges Chen may face in New Haven.

Emily began at Harvard in the fall after finishing second at the 2007 U.S. Championships, second at the 2007 Four Continents Championship, ninth at the 2007 World Championships and graduating from high school that June.   She would be limited by injuries the next few seasons but kept going until the 2010 nationals, where she was ninth, to take a shot at another Olympic team.

Sarah entered Yale after finishing sixth in the 2003 World Championships, her final competition.  She graduated from high school in 2003.

Unlike Chen, who did high school online after his freshman year, both Hughes sisters attended Great Neck North High School until graduation.

The following are Emily’s thoughts in Q&A form and Sarah’s in story form.

* * * * * * * *

I prefaced the questions to Emily Hughes by telling her I was working on a story about Nathan Chen and Yale.

Emily: I was so excited to hear Nathan was admitted to Yale!  It's great to see skaters continue to develop skills beyond skating, which they can pursue with the same passion and intensity they pursued their skating.  I think his decision to apply really speaks to his values and principles.  I hope this leads the way for future skaters to continue to balance college with competitive skating.

Q.  When did you enter Harvard?

  Emily Hughes at the 2006 Olympics.

Emily Hughes at the 2006 Olympics.

A.  I started in the fall of 2007 (class of 2011.)

Q.  Did you take any leaves while you still were competing?  Did you get all your course work done in four years?

A.  I left for one semester, the fall of 2009, to train for the 2009/2010 season.  Harvard didn't have the option to be a part-time student, so I graduated in December 2011.  I was actually the student speaker for the mid-year graduation.

Q.  What was your major?

A.  Sociology with a minor in government.

Q.  Did you take any online courses?

A.  No.  Harvard didn't offer online classes (and I enjoyed going to class.)

Q.  How hard was it to do both (skating and full-time school)?

A.   It was very difficult to do both, but I'm glad I had the experience. Many of my roommates were varsity athletes, but even that was a different experience because they did everything on campus with the team and in coordination with their classes.

I didn't skate on campus, so I had to accommodate my class schedule with the rink schedule, commute time, and my off-ice training schedule.  All that said, I'm really glad I had the opportunity to compete while in college. It motivated me to be a better student and train to be a better skater.

Q.  Would you do it again that way?

A.  Yes.  I believe college and elite skating are not mutually exclusive and that if colleges provided the same facilities and training for skaters that they do for other athletes like tennis players, golfers, etc. and their teams, college campuses would be ideal places for a young skater to train.  I admire Nathan’s choice and if he decides to go to Yale, I can't wait to see him excel as a student and continue to excel as a skater.

* * * * * * * *

Sarah Hughes’ path to and through Yale was significantly different from what Nathan Chen’s might be, and she had several detours before graduating in 2009 with a degree in American Studies.

Chen, 18, will have finished high school.  Hughes was a 16-year-old high school junior when she won the 2002 Olympic gold medal.  She would compete one more season, doing just two events because of a leg injury (2003 nationals, in which she was second, and the 2003 worlds.)

After her freshman year at Yale, Hughes took what would be her first leave of absence to capitalize on some of the financial opportunities that come with being an Olympic champion.  That included spending a touring season with Stars on Ice.

  Sarah Hughes' reaction to the stunning free skate that made her 2002 Olympic champion.

Sarah Hughes' reaction to the stunning free skate that made her 2002 Olympic champion.

After contracting mononucleosis, she took another leave in the winter/spring semester of 2006.  That became a happy coincidence because it allowed her to go to the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy to watch Emily compete as the 11th-hour replacement for injured Michelle Kwan.

“I don’t recommend leaving two separate times,” Sarah said.  “I had to reapply and take summer school courses and submit a transcript from them as part of the reapplication.”

While Yale has an on-campus ice arena, Ingalls Rink, it was usually booked by the men’s and women’s hockey teams during the afternoons, which would have been the ideal time for Hughes to skate there (after classes) when she was preparing for ice show appearances during her final three years at Yale.

She had a car on campus and found available ice at the Northford, Ct., Ice Pavilion, 10 miles from Yale.  It has three ice sheets.

“They were easy to work with,” Sarah said.

As Emily Hughes noted, she did not get the same support services provided varsity athletes.  Yale sports information director Steve Conn said in an email that would also be the case at Yale, as it is generally at universities in the United States.

Even after giving up competitive skating, transitioning to Yale was not simple for Sarah Hughes.

“College was a big adjustment, and I took that into consideration when choosing Yale,” Sarah said.  “Their college and dean system adds a lot of support for students.”

Each of Yale’s approximately 5,500 undergrads is assigned as an incoming freshman to one of its 14 residential colleges.  That college’s dean serves as the primary academic and personal advisor for the students in his or her college.

Upon learning that Chen's hope was to enter Yale next fall and keep competing, Sarah's reaction was an emphatic, "Good for him.  I'm thrilled."