Emily Hughes

Week 67 (9 - 16 January 2015)

It’s not a hard and fast rule but athletes who end their sporting careers with Olympic gold, silver or bronze medals stashed away in their back pockets are likely to find an array of post-competition employment readily available.

For the elite of the elite there are well trodden avenues into coaching, the media, after dinner speaking, ambassadorial roles, even politics. But for most athletes, despite years of dedication and countless hours of trying, failing, trying again – and sprinklings of success – they do not make that breakthrough which guarantees a post-athletic life of secure employment in high-earning sectors. Most athletes have to start again with a new career.

American figure skater Emily Hughes has just completed that transformation and her story – which emerged this week – thoroughly challenges the perception that a career reinvention for a former elite athlete is a difficult and doubt-filled transition.

Hughes was a winter Olympian at Turin 2006. Although she was a teenager at the time and had only made the US team through injury she had big hopes pinned to her shoulders. Her elder sister, Sarah, had won gold at Salt Lake City in 2002 and an expectant US public demanded more success from the Hughes dynasty.

She finished seventh.

Four years later, and by then a student at Harvard, she tried to qualify for the US team bound for Vancouver 2010 but did not make the cut – an unremarkable book end to an elite skating career.

Yet four years on from that, Hughes, aged 25, joined internet giant Google as a business analyst – a plumb job in an ultra-competitive sector seemingly a million miles away from figure skating. But in this week’s interview she made the determined point that all the sport-specific training she had done didn’t just lead her single-mindedly down a figure skating path but gave her the flexibility to turn her mind to anything, especially if she found it hard.

“With skating, constantly being corrected and told how to do something differently has helped me take constructive feedback better,” Hughes said.

Hughes’s upbringing no doubt also stood her in good stead for making a successful career transition as her parents ensured that her schooling continued despite her rigorous training schedule. 

“I always brought my books everywhere. I was going to every competition lugging this backpack around, or you know, doing homework in the car on the way to the rink. It was always important to keep my grades up.”

Hughes’s career transition in microcosm may make her seem like one of the lucky ones. One of life’s success stories who can effortlessly turn their hand to anything they wish to. But within her story lies the DNA for any athlete, however successful they are in their sport, to make a career transition on their own terms.

Hughes’s story was published by Fortune magazine and can be read in full here.

Photo: Zimbio.com