Ice Network

Olympic veterans offer advice for post-skating life

Kwan stresses using connections; Goebel values importance of education
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Since retiring from the sport, both Michelle Kwan and Timothy Goebel have found success outside of skating. -Udo Salters Photography

NEW YORK CITY - There's an appreciation we skating fans all have for what this sport's athletes achieve on the ice: The ability to perform under pressure on the biggest stages in the world, with all of a person's training coming down to just a few short minutes.

No big deal, right? Just be perfect.

But talk to some of figure skating's most accomplished names and it isn't the challenges on the ice that are the hardest in life -- it's those off of it. The transition from competitive life to an existence in the "real world" -- one that many Olympians and other successful skaters are making now -- can be particularly daunting.

"It's hard," 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes admitted to icenetwork. "Your whole life up to that point you've been trying to reach a goal. Sometimes people have things that they really want to do, but you have to be patient…patient with yourself."

Hughes has exhibited plenty of patience in her own life, having gone to Yale University and worked in New York City after winning gold in Salt Lake City. Today, she is a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Emily Hughes, Sarah's sister and a 2006 Olympian, is a senior manager at Johnson & Johnson in San Francisco. She views the time she spent competing not as something completely separate from her professional life but as a build-up to it.

"The transition is really tough, but there are so many transferable skills that I learned on the ice that expand way beyond the rink," Emily said. "It's not just about working hard and setting goals. There are so many times where I felt like I was starting over, but there are also so many things that you learn on the ice that you can take off it."

The Hughes sisters, and many other skating dignitaries, attended Tuesday night's Figure Skating in Harlem gala at Pier Sixty in New York. On a night that celebrated the famed nonprofit, which helps equip young girls of color with skills for life through education and skating, the topic of how to successfully navigate the years following the end of a skater's career was a fitting one.

Meryl Davis, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist in ice dancing with partner Charlie White, said she learned to use her skating network once her competitive days were over.

"I think it's important for people that have been there before to understand to reach out and let those going through the process know that they're there for them," Davis said. "Some people really struggle with it. I definitely had that coming out of Sochi, a lot of people saying, 'Hey, if you wanna talk, lemme know.' It's a great conversation to have with other athletes."

It's truly an athlete-to-athlete conversation, and one that Davis said she and White had in different ways once they were done competing together. After spending nearly 20 years on the ice with each other, they found they had different interests off of it -- and that was OK.

"We're enjoying the opportunity to pursue those interests," she said. "To open up your schedule, your heart and mind to things you haven't explored before, that's unique. You have to let everyone form their own path and have their moment of figuring out how they're going to take that next step. Everyone has their own way of doing it."

Also at the FSH gala were two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan, 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel and 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie. All have taken starkly different paths post-skating, but they've all landed on their feet.

"Overall, my words of wisdom are just continue to grow," said Kwan, who has worked in politics and has a continuous role with the Special Olympics. "Find your path and your passions that strike your interest. Look at every opportunity."

Goebel echoed what Kwan said and Emily Hughes had honed in on: It's the kind of life you lead during your skating career that shapes who you become after it. After skating, Goebel earned degrees from Columbia and New York universities, and now works as a partner manager for Google.

"It's hugely beneficial to athletes to keep their education going no matter how, though I think if schools are more flexible the way mine was, that's best," Goebel said. "It made my transition from athletics back into academia so much easier."

In Wylie's day, retiring from competition was less daunting, what with the existence of a full professional skating circuit and competitions with prize money. While Wylie wishes something like a pro series was around today, he maintained that education and taking your time in choosing "what's next" were most important.

"It's harder today that it used to be," he said. "You're stepping off this speeding train and you're either staying in skating in some capacity or you're going to school. It is a tougher segue in many ways."

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani announced recently that they would not compete this coming year, though they didn't rule out a comeback in the future. Kwan said she sees the siblings having "many opportunities" and being "really adaptable" due to their visibility and the connections they've made not only in the sports world but outside of it.

"As an Olympian or professional athlete, you have a network of people that are at your fingertips," Kwan said. "Ask people questions! Make the most of those opportunities."

And, though it could feel much the same, there is big difference between that first step into the "real world" and striking the opening pose of a program.

Emily Hughes put it best.

"The advice is that you're not starting from zero," she said with a smile.

Let the music play.