Alexandra Cohen’s resume probably does not resemble yours: she’s a 2006 Olympic Silver Medalist in figure skating, a three-time World Championship medalist, the 2003 Grand Prix Final Champion, and the 2006 U.S. Champion. You may have one thing in common, though: Cohen is a student at Columbia.
Sitting in your philosophy class or next to you in Butler are Columbians who had professional athletic and artistic careers long before they came to campus. Alexandra Cohen, a GS student better known in the figure skating world as Sasha Cohen, is just one of many. Some, like Kristine Musademba, a freshman in the College and former competitive skater, and Jen Barrer-Gall, a GS student and ballerina, made the choice to trade in successful careers for an Ivy League education. Musademba competed locally, nationally, and internationally until the 2011 Grand Prix in China, Barrer-Gall joined the Orlando Ballet’s Studio Company for two seasons, and Cohen achieved international fame five years ago as an Olympic medalist.
For Cohen and Musademba, coming to college was the necessary next step after extremely competitive athletic schedules. “I just needed a break,” says Musademba. Cohen’s decision centered around a desire for normalcy, which she thought she could find at college. “I’ve been in the spotlight for my whole life, and now I can just be normal, and have people like me for who I am without this preconceived notion of who I am.” For this reason, Cohen has taken to using her full name at Columbia, rather than Sasha.
Ending an athletic career isn’t always a conscious choice. Barrer-Galle was forced to cut her dance career short after she was injured during her second season with Orlando Ballet’s Studio Company. “After the injury, I was ready for a change,” Barrer-Gall says. “As much as sometimes I would want to get better and audition, something inside made me want to transition to something else.”
Before coming to college, their focus was not on school or social life, but on training. Cohen did not even experience high school—she started homeschooling in 7th grade, Barrer-Gall graduated a semester early from high school, and though Musademba did have somewhat of a normal school life, she missed out as well. “I rarely went out on Friday nights because I would have to skate the next morning,” she says. For Cohen, though, her breaking point was missing the pivotal moment of every teenager’s high school career—prom. It was then she realized how much skating had taken over her life. “I was so focused on skating that I didn’t see the road not taken,” she says.
During their athletic careers, their schedules were largely predetermined by coaches. College has given them the shock of newly-found free time. Training, coaching, and traveling have been replaced with papers, lectures, and readings. “It is hard, since I’m a very compulsive person, and my days were scheduled to the hour,” Barrer-Gall says. “I was used to being in a studio from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but now it’s hard when it’s not spelled out for you.”
“It was very hard at times [skating], but at the same time, I think that having that sort of time pressure to get things done when you have practice the next morning is helpful,” Musademba says. “There is no time to procrastinate.”
To ease the transition into collegiate life, Barrer-Gall and Cohen started as part-time students. “Being able to go part-time made the transition easier,” Barrer-Gall says. “I got to gradually work up to being a full-time college student.”
Cohen, Barrer-Gall, and Musademba say they are happy to have a fresh start, and not simply be known by their athletic and artistic careers. Rigourous practice schedules have been replaced with new activities and interests. Cohen, for example, has found a love for economics, and Musademba is taking this opportunity to explore soccer, Spectator, model congress, and debate.
While all three women are happy to leave professional careers in the past, they are still active in their respective sports. Cohen skates at rinks in the city on weekends, Barrer-Gall teaches class for Columbia Ballet Collaborative, and Musademba says she wants to try skating without the pressure of competition.
For these women, school isn’t about stressing over papers or projects—it’s been a break. “It’s been really sort of relaxing, and it’s so weird to be in normal situations where skating doesn’t come into account, because in high school I was always ‘the skater girl,’ but here it’s definitely a fresh start.” Musademba says. “It’s cool because I’m figuring out who Kristine is without skating.”