Olympic Dreams

By: Tate Mitchell

While the world is abuzz with talk of the Olympic Winter Games, Sarah Hughes (AB ’14) is in PyeongChang, South Korea in the midst of the action, and she credits her time at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs for getting her there.

Hughes currently works as a researcher for NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, with a primary focus on figure skating. As a researcher, she watches the athletes practice, speaks with them frequently to gather information on their background and how they are feeling throughout the day, and compiles it all into a report for NBC’s commentators ahead of each primetime broadcast. While NBC reports on the Olympics live, Hughes sits in the booth with the commentators to ensure that they have all of the information they need and that the broadcast runs smoothly.

“By the time someone gets out to the ice at the Olympics, it doesn’t really matter so much if they’re going to hit their triple axel. What matters in that moment is every step that they took to get there,” says Hughes. “So that’s what I do. I make sure that we know what the story is beyond the athletic performance.”

Hughes’ job is both thrilling and unique, but what makes her story even more compelling is that the road to 2018’s Olympic Winter Games began when she was an undergraduate at UGA.

Hughes was drawn to UGA by the HOPE Scholarship, a narrative that many students in Athens can relate to, but when she got here, she never imagined she would end up studying international affairs.

“I watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy in high school, so I had this really misguided idea about becoming a doctor,” she says. “But after realizing that freshman chemistry was a terrible idea for me, I tried out an international relations class, and I loved it, so I ended up studying international affairs with a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies. It ended up being a happy twist of fate.”

Once she found her passion in international affairs, Hughes chased it full-throttle. She enrolled in SPIA’s Center for International Trade and Security as a member of the Richard B. Russell Security Leadership Program, where she had the opportunity to take classes on weapons of mass destruction and trade security as well as intern with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government on campus.

During her senior year, Hughes interned with NBC for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, and she immediately fell in love with the adrenaline of live TV as well as the emotion and intersectionality that the Olympics entails. She began seeing what she studied back in Athens right in front of her in Sochi as politics, sports and culture all melded together into a global event. Because of this experience, Hughes decided to forgo grad school and pursue becoming an Olympic researcher for NBC.

After graduation, Hughes reached out to everyone she met at NBC during her internship and made her desires well known. She began as a production assistant for NBC, getting coffee for her superiors and working on programs for NASCAR, hockey, the Super Bowl, rugby tournaments and even the Kentucky Derby.

For two years, she applied for every research position that came available, and she finally scored one working on the Bottom Line Ticker that runs across the bottom of the screen for all of NBC’s sports programs. She used this position to get more research experience, and finally, a little over two years ago, her former boss during the 2014 Winter Olympics reached out and asked her to come onboard as a researcher for figure skating.

The rest, Hughes would argue, is quite literally history. She gets to be on the frontlines of the Winter Olympics, watching cultures collide as athletes from around the globe compete to bring the gold back to their home countries.

All of that said, Hughes holds a deep belief that her studies and experiences at UGA served as a launching pad to allow her to perform successfully in her position.

“First and foremost, my job involves a lot of writing,” she says. “I feel like I’m a super strong writer, and I credit that to my time in SPIA studying international affairs, a major that is very research heavy.”

Outside of logistical skills like writing and research, Hughes believes that SPIA gave her the context necessary to realize the importance of what she does.

“All the different things that I did through SPIA prepared me to put everything else that I do for the rest of my life into a greater context. Figure skating, on its face, is just a sport, but I think there are parts of sports that touch every part of our lives,” says Hughes.

For instance, the last time the Olympics were held in South Korea, North Korea boycotted the games. This year, the delegation from each country can be found cheering for their peers.

“These skaters [from North and South Korea] have trained together, and they’re good friends,” she says. “So I think that though skating is just a sport, my time at SPIA allows me to see the greater context of where that all fits. My time at UGA prepared me to see and understand that in a deeper way, which allows me to write about it in a better way so that when we tell that story on TV, my contributions are more valuable.”

In her position as a researcher, Hughes has had incredible experiences, including a visit to the DMZ, but the stories about people are what make the job even more exciting for her. She has the unique opportunity to combine research with humanity to produce a product for mass consumption, and that is the best part of what she does.

“At the end of the day, once they’ve made it to the Olympic ice, it doesn’t really matter for me what an athlete does there,” says Hughes. “At that point, it’s like ‘This is somebody’s whole life,’ and we have four minutes to tell an entire American public who they are and why they matter. So I guess my favorite part of the job is that I get to do those stories justice.”

As she reflects on her time at UGA, Hughes is confident that the time she spent in Athens prepared her for this job and whatever may be next, and the opportunity to impart wisdom to current students is not lost on her.

“First off, pay your parking tickets,” she says. “They will put a boot on your car if you’re parked outside the Special Collections Library and you didn’t pay a previous ticket. They’ll find you again, and that is just unpleasant. Beyond that, I would say don’t get too caught up in the greater meaning of everything right away. I think that’s a lesson that I had to learn. I have discovered that if you really love what you’re doing, that’s big enough. I am a better member of society and a better person to the people around me because I am doing something that I’m passionate about.”