Ten years can make a world of a difference. On Feb. 23, 2006, Sasha Cohen won an Olympic silver medal in figure skating in Torino, Italy, after spending most of her life training in California. Cohen, now 31 and going by her given name Alex, spent this Feb. 23 focused on coursework for her final semester at New York’s Columbia University and finalizing arrangements for her August wedding.
The two-time Olympian and three-time world medalist, who is the last U.S. women’s figure skater to medal at an Olympic Games, was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame last month along with fellow 2006 Olympians Evan Lysacek, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. After the induction, Cohen spoke to TeamUSA.org about her Ivy League career, post-collegiate aspirations and her upcoming wedding to hedge fund manager Tom May.
Why did you decide to attend Columbia?
I knew I wanted to live in New York, and that narrowed down my options a little bit. I applied to NYU and to Columbia. I started there in 2011, so this will be my fifth year. In the beginning I was still touring full-time for skating, and so I was just taking one or two classes. Because of that, I would go to class in the summers too, and then my junior year I decided, ‘All right, I’m not skating anymore, it’s time I take five classes a semester and graduate.’ I graduate this May.
How did you land on your major, political science?
I originally thought I wanted to major in financial economics and work in finance, but after working in finance a bit I realized that wasn’t my true passion. I took an intro class to American government and politics, and just was really interested in understanding politics from any perspective. I was interested in the history of different nations and their cultures and what people want and how negotiations work, but also just gaining a basis for better understanding current events in the newspaper, understanding the histories that the events and discussions have emerged from.
And especially taking classes in justice, income and equality lately and seeing everything from Black Lives Matter to the wide inequality gap and everything that’s happing right now in this country that’s so relevant is making me more interested. So I’m still bouncing around within areas of specialty in political science, but there’s a lot of interesting things happening in the world right now.
What do you hope to do with your degree?
There’s a lot of different institutions that potentially could be very interesting. I’d love to do some research and work with a very engaging topic that I feel like really matters and can really change lives, and I think I have a high standard after competing and doing something that I really care about where your work really becomes your life, and I’m looking for something that has that same intensity again.
What is your favorite class you’ve taken at Columbia?
First Amendment Values was very interesting and I had a great teacher, and then I really liked Justice. We did a lot of case studies every week, reading cases for and against issues such as the death penalty, surrogacy, income redistribution. It’s interesting when you read very extensive arguments pro and con on something like the Hobby Lobby case and understanding the evolution of religious freedom and what different acts like RFRA intended to do.
It’s very interesting to understand the intricacies and if there is a morally right point of view, and just understanding people and the way people see things. I think you grow up in your community and you think things are this way and they’re right, and you dismiss other points of view. But when you understand a detailed argument of where they come from, it makes things more equitable.
Aside from the subject knowledge gained in classes, how has your college career changed you as a person?
Even though I don’t have a finger on exactly what I want to do, I feel much more developed as a person from the range of classes I’ve had to take through the liberal and core curriculum at Columbia. Not only do I feel better equipped to engage with the world, but also in understanding myself better and being a better citizen, and it’s changed my conversations and the way I perceive life and reading the news and what matters. I feel lucky to have been able to go to such a great school and take great classes with amazing professors. It’s given me a lot.
You’re one of several Olympians in your generation who ended up in New York after their competitive careers. Why is that?
I think New York is a global destination. It has a pulse that attracts people from all over the world. You can do anything at any time – you can pursue an education, you have more networking and job opportunities than anywhere else in the world. You have the social and cultural events; you can go to the theater, the opera, the amazing museums, and yet still go to really interesting talks and lectures on ISIS. It’s just everything, and it’s so densely packed and it’s an exciting city. It’s something I recommend for everyone at some point in their life.
In the hall of fame press conference, Ben Agosto said you were very thoughtful throughout your skating career and that is something that carried over to your college career. Why do you think you’re described that way?
I think maybe it’s kind of how you’re born and the way your mind works. Everyone has a different mind structure and the way information feeds through your brain, and I’m always hypercritical, I’m analytical, I’m constantly rearranging every bit of information and trying to understand and trying to make better and be more informed. Sometimes it makes you crazy and sometimes it’s too much, but it’s the way I am and it’s what makes me really curious, engaged and kind of constantly extending myself and stretching to be more.
I think that’s what led me to New York from southern California and to go to a very competitive school where school was everyone’s life since they’ve grown up and I had been homeschooled since I was 12. So I think I like to think, I like to challenge myself; I’m just a very curious person.
In addition to preparing to graduate, you’re planning a wedding to Tom May. How’s that going?
We’re getting married in August in Cape Cod. It’s a lot of work, but we’re slowly plugging through and have most of the boxes checked.
Why Cape Cod?
We wanted to do a barn upstate, but with rain the options weren’t very good, and I could just imagine my grandma trying to go to the bathroom through the mud, so we ruled that out. His family’s from Boston and spends summers in Cape Cod, so there were some options close to where they live and it seemed like a beautiful, good summer spot to have a wedding.
How do you see skating fitting into your future?
I always love to go out and skate for myself, and there’s no better workout than going around and stroking and doing the edges; you’re using every little muscle you didn’t know you have, and then you’re winded after three laps and you’re like, ‘How did I do a long program?’ So, I think it will be a hobby for me. I obviously don’t know where the future will go, but I feel as far as my time and my interests, there’s just so much I want to understand about the rest of the world that I don’t think skating will be a huge part of my life going forward.