With the Super Bowl imminent, fans across the nation are clamoring to make their bets on the winning team in the nation’s most popular football showdown.
But for Christina Gao, 18, excitement about a different sport has been occupying the majority of her time, especially on the heels of her fifth-place finish at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Gao, a competitive figure skater and Harvard freshman, has been making headlines for both her figure-skating and academic talent — and her ability to juggle commitments in both arenas. However, her most recent performance has Gao rethinking her trajectory for the next year.
Gao has decided to take one year off from Harvard in order to pursue her skating career and train for the Olympics next February.
Christina Gao during the senior ladies free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals.
For many competitive figure skaters, there comes a time in their careers when they are faced with a decision to choose to pursue either school or skating full time.
Like Gao, 23-year-old Jessica Crenshaw decided to take some time off from college in order to pursue her figure-skating career when she was a freshman at Columbia University. Crenshaw went on to compete internationally and became a two-time Greek National Pairs Figure Skating Champion and international medalist.
Now, as a recent college graduate, Crenshaw offers a different perspective on the choice she made between school and skating.
“Only recently have I felt that I may have missed out on some things after taking time off [from school],” she said. “I didn’t do the whole searching for a career thing, but rather had to rush through it at the end.”
The pressure to make a decision between a skater’s academic and sports life can also be complicated by different opinions from members of each respective community.
“I feel like you are less respected in the skating world if you go to school, but at school you are more respected if you are an athlete and are doing both,” Crenshaw said.
Despite these pressures, Crenshaw said she believes that ultimately she made the decision that was best for her.
“You can always go back to school, but you can’t go back to skating. At 23 years, I’m considered old for the sport,” she explained.
For other skaters, the decision to pursue school and skating concurrently was the best one for their personal skating careers, and entering the college community provided a pivotal opportunity to make that possible.
Ariel Dora Stern, a graduate of Dartmouth College, went to junior nationals twice when she was in middle school. She said she made the decision to compete competitively again upon entering college and finding a community of skaters who were able to support one another as they balanced their academic and athletic commitments.
“It wasn’t until I came to college that skating became a part of my social identity and I credit a lot of that to the fact that Dartmouth had a skating team,” Stern said.
Stephanie Brand, 20, of Richmond, Va., is another skater who is familiar with the team aspect of figure skating. Unlike Stern, who competed individually but was part of her college figure-skating team, Brand competes in a group, alongside the other skaters of Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) synchronized figure-skating team.
Like Stern, she has chosen to stay in college while pursuing skating, and said she finds that skating on a team can help each team member maintain the delicate balance between school and sports.
“We have used Skype during practice so the girls that couldn’t make it could see what was going on. We also put up videos and send out step sheets so that all the girls have it available. … School comes first, and the coaches know that, but we try to make it work with our homework and full-time schedules,” said Brand.
The choice a skater makes — to pursue school, skating or both — is time-sensitive and can be affected by different circumstances, depending on what level of skating the skater aspires to.
When Gao returned to Harvard after the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she came knowing that she would not be continuing her college education along the same trajectory as her classmates. Gao shares the same sentiment as Crenshaw regarding the timeliness of her decision to take time off from school in order to dedicate herself fully to skating.
“This is probably the only chance I have to shoot for the Olympics,” she said, “but Harvard will always be here.”
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