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Women’s Figure Skating Has to Change
Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes on how the Russian doping scandal could bring needed change to the sport
By SARAH HUGHES
The scene that unfolded on Thursday morning in Beijing during the Women’s Figure Skating competition — watching Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old thrust into the center of Russia’s doping scandal, struggle so publicly — was disheartening on many levels. It also capped off a terrible week for the sport of figure skating, the Olympic Games, the Olympic movement — and, most of all, the women involved.
The women competing have spent their lives sacrificing normalcy — and their health — at a chance to be number one in the world. And this is where we have a problem.
The Olympic creed is that the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part. But how can one take part when they are broken down? Something needs to change. Here’s how that change could start.
Update the Scoring System
Exploiting the scoring system shouldn’t result in exploiting the athlete. When the 6.0 scoring system was replaced with the International Judging System in the early 2000s — moving away from a relatively subjective and wholistic approach, into one that awards points for each individual element the skater executes — the unintended consequence was a prioritization of jumping (included in the first mark) versus the artistry and skating skills (the second mark). To gain the biggest advantage under this system, skaters focus their training on jumping. The first quad landed by a woman was in this Olympics, with the first and second place finisher doing multiple quads in their program. The goal of the scoring system, both in the 6.0 system and now, is that the skater who is the best at both marks ends up on top. But that is not what is happening, because it is so much harder to rack up points in the second mark once quads are introduced. So it becomes a jumping game. It should be noted that no woman over 17 has landed a quad in competition.
Ensure Skaters Are Healthy, No Matter Their Age
Another solution that has been suggested is raising the age limit of competitors in skating. I’m not convinced this is the answer. If a skater is good enough, and is able to do necessary elements under the scoring system, that skater should be allowed to compete at a level consistent with their skill. Since 1994, teenage women have dominated the top spot at the Games, with 7 out of the last 8 Olympic champions winning as a teenager (including myself at 16). The top men tend to be older. The age limit in skating is the same for men and women, but raising the age limit disproportionately affects women, who generally peak in the sport earlier than men.
The sport has erred towards favoring women who are very young and very thin. Maybe fixing one fixes the other. What about another metric to ensure a healthier body? That would help avoid unhealthy measures taken to delay puberty and keep weight at unhealthy levels, lessening the mental and emotional turmoil these young girls face to succeed in the sport.
Monitor Potentially Harmful ‘Stables’
One more solution to encourage the well-being of the athletes could be to stop harmful skating stables, where skaters tend to have little say and multiple skaters of the same level are pitted against each other. In a stable like this, skaters have less of an incentive to take care of their own well-being. There is a win at all costs attitude that goes against the principles of sportsmanship and fair play. The skaters are disposable, with the coaching team spreading its bets among the skaters and having less of an interest in maintaining their physical and mental well-being than if there were fewer of the top skaters under the same coach. When parents think of sending their child to the “best coach,” they aren’t thinking they are sending their child to be broken, they are thinking they are doing what’s best for their child’s success.
Perhaps the solution is simpler and more narrow: more frequent doping tests and in multiple ways, such as hair samples, blood tests, and urine tests. Harsher penalties for coaches and doctors whose athletes test positive for banned substances. The International Skating Union or International Olympic Committee monitoring magnet facilities. Being in this world, there many people who exclude the values of sportsmanship and fair play, and have fulfilling, purposeful post-Olympic lives. The solutions that need to be implemented aren’t ones that change those lives. They are the ones that will disincentive what we are seeing now. It is unfortunate that it took a positive doping test to get the ball rolling on athlete well-being — which should be table stakes — but now that we’re here, this can be the most important change of all.
Sarah Hughes won a gold medal for figure skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
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Role Models Can Serve as the Ultimate Inspiration
Sarah Hughes, a law student, won the gold medal in women's figure skating at the 2002 winter Olympics. She is on Twitter.
UPDATED AUGUST 16, 2016, 3:21 AM
The life of an Olympic athlete is not glamorous. And this is coming from a person who chose, possibly, the most glamorous sport in the Games. Figure skating meant early mornings in a cold, gray rink. It meant blistered feet from new skates. It meant sore body parts, after falling in the same spot time after time, morning after morning, day after day, week after week — and in my case for one specific jump — multiplying that same process for almost four years. But who’s counting?
Well, turns out we all are. Numbers tend to be important when it comes to the Olympics.
I remember hitting a rough spot a few months before the games. My role model, Tenley Albright, the first American woman to win the gold in Women's Figure Skating, served as an inspiration. I was pursuing athletics and academics at the top level, something none of my peers were doing at the time — and something none of her peers had done either. Doing something no one else is doing is not easy. It can be very isolating. But thinking of how she was able to excel in the rink and in school kept me motivated during the times I doubted it was possible to hand in an essay on the American Revolution in the morning and perform triple-triples in the afternoon.
Having role models is integral to staying motivated. It helps change the mindset from “I’m tired. This is hard. Why bother?” to knowing it is possible to dig deeper and be better. When I think of the trickle-down effect that my efforts could have, I am also motivated to push myself a little harder. I want to inspire others too.
Months after Tenley won gold, she enrolled in medical school, one of few women in her class. All of her professors were male. Today, I am a law student at the University of Pennsylvania. Roughly half my class consists of women, and last year, three of my professors were women.
These numbers are important because — like the numbers on a scoreboard — they represent progress. Numbers can signal setbacks, participation, and help frame our goals. They keep me motivated in sport and in life.
They help me measure my work, and the world around me. After all, at the Rio Olympics, there are 292 women representing the United States, the highest number to ever compete for one nation. Continuing that upward trend (one that builds a more diverse group of role models) keeps me motivated.
LeanIn.Org, October 22, 2015
The Betsey Johnson Fashion Show
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By LEAN IN
BY SARAH HUGHES
OCT 22, 2015 AT 8:00 AM
I started figure skating when I was three and won the Olympics at sixteen. I am often asked about what happened in the interim, to share the secret to success that existed between these two bookends. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about too.
Telling people what they want to hear in a few short sentences and telling people the reality is not always the same thing. It’s not because I don’t want to share the reality of it – the reality of leaning in, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute. The reality of occasionally taking on more than you think you can handle to reach the next level, which sport requires you to do, and to do often.
Two amazing things can happen when you embrace this: you gain a newfound confidence in yourself and you meet people who will change your life by inspiring you to keep leaning in.
To have success in skating, you need to be very skilled in articulation. You must understand what you want, your capabilities, your opportunities, and constantly work on your ability to deal with failure and success. Once you have a grasp on that, you start working on ways to express it better externally. There is a joy in being able to communicate how you feel inside to the outside world. It’s this articulation that forms the most basic connection from one person to another and something I continue to work on everyday.
A few months after the Olympics, I gave a speech in New York. Billie Jean King was front and center. I spoke about the influence she’s had through her “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, but also about the importance of the legislation she helped pass to ensure equal opportunities to future generations of children in federally funded programs through Title IX.
When we spoke after, I knew I had a like-minded friend. What I didn’t know was that the relationship we began then would become what it is today, over thirteen years later.
We went to a hockey game at Madison Square Garden a few months ago. I’ve always admired her boldness in being the person to stand up and make a change when she encounters injustice. It’s a quality that has made me want to be more like her. I told her that I was applying to law school to be more effective in the work we were doing together through the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization she founded. In true Billie Jean fashion, she didn’t just approve of the idea of becoming a law student, she celebrated it as if it was the best idea she’d heard all year.
I was recently appointed to the Board of Trustees for the Women’s Sports Foundation. After working as an Ambassador for WSF focusing on benefitting underserved girls and women, I became more aware of the multifaceted challenges and issues facing people all over the country. When Senators and Representatives take meetings with me, I know I only have a few minutes to clearly and concisely make my point. It is now more important than ever for me to be articulate. It’s a skill I’ve been developing my whole life: on the ice, off the ice, at Yale as an undergrad, and now as a 1L at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
I think of Billie Jean’s reaction at that hockey game often. When I look back to the ingredients for success I achieved in sport, enthusiasm and passion are at the heart of it. When I look forward, her reaction reminds me of the can-do spirit and optimism I want to have for life and for the possibilities I have ahead of me; possibilities for creating opportunities for others and advocating for justice for all of us on the playing field and off of it.
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A Strong Family Was the Key to Victory
Sarah Hughes won the gold medal in women's figure skating at the 2002 winter Olympics. A graduate of Yale University, she is writing her first book and blogging at the Olympics in London. She is on Twitter.
UPDATED AUGUST 11, 2016, 2:57 PM
I started skating when I was 3 years old, standard for kids growing up in Canada, my father’s birthplace. Competing in the Olympic Games had been a dream of mine from the beginning, but being one of six children, skating was not the most important aspect of my – or my family’s – life.
My parents were not willing to separate me from my family or take me out of my local public school to accomplish my dreams. If I was going to make it in skating, I was going to do it by being a functional family member and following the same rules as my brothers and sisters. And this suited me just fine – one house, one school, one community, one rink provided a very stable and productive environment.
I made it by being a functional family member in a productive environment -- one house, one school, one community, one rink.
When I was 12 years old, my mother was hospitalized with breast cancer. I was on the way to making my first national team. The thrill of seeing my excitement at each stage of qualifying gave her strength through many rounds of chemotherapy. On days she was too weak to walk down the hospital corridor, she would think, “I have to make it through. I have to be there for my kids.” My mom was able to leave the hospital to come to Philadelphia from New York to watch me win the Junior Ladies title. That day I was skating for more than just the judges.
The stability instilled in my life by my parents made all the difference when I performed in Salt Lake City on skating’s grandest stage. When I stood atop the Olympic podium five months after 9/11 – in my home country – I was able to share more than just my skating experience with the same people who were with me all along. My younger sister, Emily, who competed in the 2006 Olympic Games, was raised in the same stable, supportive environment. We are among the lucky ones whose journeys are family affairs.
It is no surprise to me that the comment heard most this week in interviews with our Olympic athletes in London, whether medal winners or not, is that their greatest joy comes from sharing the experience with their parents and loved ones. That will also be their greatest memory.
Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2010
Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2010
Skating (Figuratively) With Sarah Hughes
In this latest installment of the WSJ's "How Hard Can it Be" series, Reed Albergotti gets a figure-skating lesson from Olympian Sarah Hughes ahead of the Vancouver Winter Games. Spoiler alert: WSJ reporters can't spin or do double-axels.
CNN.com, October 1, 2009
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Commentary: Obama's Olympic Bid is for Unity
By Sarah Hughes
Special to CNN
Editor's note: Sarah Hughes won the gold medal in figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is a graduate of Yale University.
(CNN) -- What are the first thoughts that pop into your mind when you hear the word Olympics? Probably something synonymous with excellence, greatness, excitement, achievement.
Maybe it's the striking image of Nadia Comaneci scoring a perfect 10 etched in your mind, or the experience of following Michael Phelps' quest to win a record-breaking eight gold medals last summer in Beijing, China.
Or is it the thrill of watching the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team winning the gold medal in Lake Placid, stacked up against unimaginable odds, that occupies that space?
I could go on and on, but whatever image the Olympics has for you is probably accompanied by a feeling of pride, happiness, joyfulness, maybe even a childlike glee.
Sometimes it's the simple way you can sum up your response to the question -- and perhaps that's the point of asking the question -- but it would be foolish to ignore other aspects of the Games that contribute to making the event happen.
Although the presence of public officials at host-city bids shows the International Olympic Committee that they are behind the bid and will be supportive, such appearances are not required.
On Friday, President Obama, a Chicago, Illinois, resident for many years, will arrive in Copenhagen, Denmark (his wife is already there), to support and try to persuade the IOC voters in favor of the 2016 Chicago bid.
Obama's visit to Copenhagen will make him the first U.S. president to attend an Olympic host-city vote. His visit will not be the first by a president (or prime minister) whose country went on to win a bid for the Games.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife were in Singapore lobbying IOC members for the 2012 Summer Games host-city vote when London was awarded the event. Two years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin went to the host-city vote in Guatemala when Sochi, a relatively unknown city, won the right to host the 2014 Winter Games.
The other 2016 contenders vying for votes from the 100-plus eligible members of the IOC are Madrid, Spain; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Tokyo, Japan.
Michelle Obama, a lifelong Chicagoan enthusiastically championing the U.S. bid, is displaying her "Olympic spirit."
On Monday, the eve of her visit to Copenhagen, she spoke of being ready to woo each voter individually if need be: "Gloves are off. I'm talking to everybody. That's what my schedule looks like." Sounding like an Olympic competitor already herself, she added that she didn't "think there's one person left off."
It is easy to come to the conclusion that I might be biased, having won a gold medal in figure skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, but I was an American and a fan long before those Games, and I will be one long after.
The memories, unity and patriotism from the Salt Lake Games wasn't about any one particular thing but about all those little "things" coming together: the result of what the participants -- the fans, volunteers, competitors, coaches, moms, dads, sisters, brothers, cities and nations -- created by sharing the best we have to offer with one another.
That's what the Olympics are about. They are about greatness, they are about excellence, but above all, the Games are about unity.
In a September 10 letter to IOC members, Obama wrote about how he "sees the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games as an extraordinary opportunity for America to renew our bonds of friendship and welcome the world to our shores with open arms."
And on Friday, when Obama arrives in Copenhagen, he will be joined by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, newly appointed Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and King Juan Carlos of Spain.
Let the Games begin.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sarah Hughes.
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The Betsey Johnson Fashion Show
By Sarah Hughes
September 13, 2011
In an effort to top my sister Emily with a post that has more views with hers on DailyHouse.com, I am giving you the inside scoop on what the Betsey Johnson show was like from the first row.
First of all, I don’t have a publicist or an agent, so I don’t get invited to many shows. Luckily, many of the fashion designers are skating fans. Woohoo!
Vera Wang has taken the fandom one step farther: she was a skater herself, going as far as competing in the National Championships when she was younger. As a result, it was natural for her to share her artistic talents with the skating world (as Joey has pointed out above) making skating outfits for Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan, and most recently, Olympic Champion Evan Lysacek.
I can confirm the speculation about Betsey making a dress for me for a show next week. She is. And the entire experience has been beyond FABULOUS. My first fitting with her was the day after she celebrated her 69th birthday and I wasn’t sure if I should wish her a happy birthday. You know, some people are touchy about their age, especially when, as Vera once told me, age isn’t relevant in fashion. Maybe she didn’t even acknowledge it. Well, when I walked into her studio, it was clear she celebrates everything there is to offer -- there was a giant poster from the day before against the wall. (See her studio in the accompanying photos.)
I think I got my love of fashion from my maternal grandmother (Nana). After serving as a Sergeant in WWII, she started a successful business. The fruits of her labor allowed her to enjoy two new passions, throwing parties and wearing the hottest fashions. A far cry from army life. My mom says it must have skipped a generation since my mom wears the same 3 outfits on rotation. (Hope she doesn’t see this.) Anyway, the reason Nana liked throwing parties was “because they bring people together.” She never went to a fashion show, probably because her life was a fashion show, but she would have loved it. (Sidenote: I recently found out she refused to go on cruises after her first one “because there wasn’t enough shopping.”)
As any good granddaughter tries to do, I felt telling her about my experience with Betsey would make her proud. She wanted to see a picture, but I told it wasn’t ready yet. I knew she’d have a conniption if she saw it “as is.” The second fitting was even better than the first. Betsey loves skating and exudes an unbelievable amount of positive energy and enthusiasm for her job. She spent a good 45 minutes trying to get the outfit right. Calling it a “dress” is a bit of a stretch, but since she added a wire-type skirt in this visit the description fits. Here we are at my second fitting. (Again, see accompanying photos.)
She loves the hot pink and black combo, hence the hot pink on top of my head. It is actually the fluffy skirt of a dress since I had taken the pink wig from the first fitting and forgot to bring it back.
Now, on to her fashion show last night! It was a SCENE. Especially when Nicki Minaj came and brought her hair with her. Tons and tons of people pushing through the door to the Theater at Lincoln Center. Sitting room, standing room, in between room, how everyone filed in and out without major injury is a testament to the desire of seeing Betsey’s genius.
This is a fashion show in tweet form: Dark lights, loud music. Skinny models trying to walk. People acting too cool to be bothered.
Here’s Betsey’s show in tweet form: Celebration! Dark lights, loud music, dancing, sashaying, smiling. Nicki Minaj’s blue hair. Cartwheels, balloons & high kicks 4 finale.
The show featured models of all shapes, sizes and ages. They showcased her lace, leather, leopard and sequin numbers in succession as they paraded down the runway. Betsey doesn’t just wave or merely bow as the last outfit is modeled. She did a high kick, followed by a split, and ended her gymnastics routine with her signature cartwheel. Then she danced down the stage with the models, hugging people in the first row as she went by.
As for my dress, I have yet to have another fitting and the show is next Saturday. I saw a glimpse when she posted this on her facebook page: (Betsey's FB: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150294347939705&set=a.88817249704.75825.88460909704&type=1&theater)
Then last week the producer of the skating show stopped by her office and sent me a photo of him with my outfit. (I've also shared that in the accompanying photos.)
Let’s just hope I look better in the finished product than he does or I’m not sure how I’ll explain it to my 90-year-old Nana. Yikes!!
The show will air on NBC Sunday November 13, from 4-6pm EST.