2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Spotlight: Abby Hughes
October 18, 2013
For someone who’s still working her way through a fear of heights, Abby Hughes picked a strange sport to compete in.
But the 24-year-old ski jumper from Park City insists that her jumps off of 120-meter hills aren’t nearly as scary as standing at the tops of tall buildings.
"A lot of people wonder why I jump if I’m afraid of heights," she said. "But with ski jumping, it’s a controlled sport. When I’m in the air, I’m controlling myself. It’s something where I can trust in myself. But if you put me at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, I won’t look over the edge."
Not even one look down?
"Well, maybe I’ll peek over," she admitted. "But it’s not my favorite thing."
So why even take up a sport like ski jumping? Maybe it’s just in her genes.
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"We were in the Park City School District and they did an after-school program," Hughes said. "There was a learn-to-jump program you could do on Friday afternoons and my brother picked that one. I always idolized him and wanted to be just like him."
She followed in her brother Blake’s footsteps, but didn’t realize it wasn’t an Olympic option for women until later.
"He was 15 when the [2002 Winter Olympic] Games were here and he got to forerun, which is basically being a test jumper," she said. "They test the hill out before the competition starts so the judges get a feel for the hill and the speed and the kind of flight pattern of the hill and to make sure the track is ready to go."
Naturally, Hughes tagged along to watch her brother.
"He couldn’t drive yet and he’d have to be up at the hill at like 5 every morning," she said. "I didn’t even care that it was so early, I just wanted to go up there and get to be a part of it. I didn’t even realize women weren’t jumping I just idolized the boys and never thought twice that I wasn’t going to be there any time soon. But I knew I wanted to be there. It was really surreal."
Hughes’ realization came during the next Olympics, the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. Having started her own ski jumping career, she wondered why she and her teammates weren’t participating.
"We were in Germany during the 2006 Games," she said. "Normally, when we’re on tour, we’ll be in hotels with some of the girls from other teams. We were all crowded around watching the opening ceremonies and a couple of the older girls had tears in their eyes and I looked at them and I looked at the TV and was like, ‘Oh my god, why aren’t we there? Why don’t we get to do this?’ And it just hit me like a bus."
From then on, Hughes joined her teammates’ fight to get women’s ski jumping in the Olympics.
"That weekend [in Germany], we had four girls in the top six of the competition," she said. "Imagine if that was at the Olympics and we had four girls in the top six. It was almost a slap in the face. That pushed all of us to get better and get to the Olympics to prove that we should be there."
So Hughes got back to training even harder, focusing on becoming the best jumper she could be to try to prove her sport’s worth. Her brother was there supporting her every step of the way, especially after retiring from his own jumping career.
"When he retired in 2009, it was really weird and strange for me to be at the hill without him," she said. "I think that’s when I realized he made such a big impact on my career and my life. But now he’s my biggest fan. It’s really cool to have the person I look up to be my fan."
And, she added, her brother never misses a jump.
"He stays up and watches all the competitions when we’re in Europe," she said. "He’ll find the live feed even if it’s at 3 in the morning."
So, she makes sure to give Blake a shout-out, even when he’s not personally in attendance.
"On my gloves I have ‘Love you brother,’" she said. "We’ve definitely grown close through this sport."
Now that women’s ski jumping will be making its Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Hughes, a member of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association and Women’s Ski Jumping USA, hopes she can qualify to jump for Team USA. But, she added, the most important thing is continuing to have fun doing the sport she loves.
"I’ve already accomplished so much just being able to have the experiences I’ve had and the memories I’ve made," she said. "Obviously I want to go to the Olympics, I want to win a medal, I want to win world championships and I want to be the best. That’s the obvious answer. But I just want to enjoy it and have fun, too. I don’t think you can be good at something without enjoying it, without loving it and having fun."
Every week until the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, The Park Record will highlight an Olympic hopeful with ties to the Park City area. Check back next week for a story about ski jumper Nina Lussi.