Imagine being so famous people around the world know your name, yet you are able walk across a university campus and attend classes incognito as a normal college student. It may sound like the plot of a chick flick movie, but it is reality for one student at Columbia. Meet Alexandra Cohen, a student in the School of General Studies. She better known as the United States figure skater Sasha Cohen, who skated her way to a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy – just one of her numerous accomplishments.
One reason many students are unaware that they go to the same university as a world-class athlete is that she goes by simply “Alex” here at school. In fact, she actually enjoys blending into the crowd most of the time.“I think for the most part I’m pretty inconspicuous,” she said in a telephone interview. “Here and there people recognize me, but it’s pretty nice to be anonymous and just be a student.”
Alex attends Columbia part-time to accommodate her busy schedule. After all, how many students have to shoot a special for the weather channel in between classes, build and market a new line of skates and socks on the weekend, squeeze in tours and shows, all while juggling homework and finals? Alex also manages to dedicate time to work for charities such as Cycle for Survival and Figure Skate Harlem, both of which are important to her. On top of that, she is also preparing for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics Sochi, Russia. Although she still skates, she is not formally training to compete at the Olympics, but she is actively involved in the figure skating world. During the last Winter Olympics she served as a commentator for Yahoo!.
In many ways, Alex is surprisingly normal and similar to any other person living in Manhattan: she likes going to the Met, running in the park, and trying out new restaurants. A native of California, Alex appreciates that “there are so many things to try” in New York and “that you can just take in all the city has to offer and not necessarily be a persona.” It is evident that she loves being in the city.
The city life was not the only motivation Alex had for attending Columbia – she has family ties as well. “My grandfather attended Columbia and my sister went to Barnard,” she said. “I really liked the GS program and the fact that it was in New York,” she added. Alex is leaning towards a major in political science, a shift from her previous choice of financial economics, although she readily admits that it may change. Her favorite class is Contemporary Civilizations, a Core class that numerous Columbia students take. “It’s just been a wonderful exposure to the progression of Western thought,” she said. “It’s really interesting to see its influence on my other classes and thinking and society today.
The hardest part of school to get used to for an Olympic-level athlete? Sitting still for such a long periods of time.“It was go go go pretty much from eight to five,” Alex recalled of her years training as a competitive figure skater. Her days consisted of skating on the ice for about three hours, followed by an hour each of Pilates, sprints, and stretching. It is no wonder she finds it challenging to sit through class, then to go home to read and write a paper.
It turns out Alex has also been in touch with another Olympian making the adjustment to studying in New York. Nastia Liukin, who earned a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics in women’s gymnastics for the all-around, called her for advice before starting school at NYU. “She just asked me a lot of questions before she moved about balancing school, and how different it was from being a competitive athlete,” Alex explained. They also participated in Cycle for Survival together.
Even with all the success, Alex stays grounded and keeps her plans for the future open. Her plans within the next five years are not concrete, but she puts traveling, going to business school, working with her charities, and developing her businesses and skate line on the agenda. “I think I’m open to where life will lead,” she mused. “Hopefully it will be exciting.”
Despite making the jump from competitive athlete to student, it is apparent that Alex truly values her education and what Columbia has to offer. She has nothing but admiration for her professors, classmates, and campus.
“It’s so inspiring to be around that group of students at Columbia,” Alex enthused. “Everyone is so aware of the world around them and so academically curious and it’s such a wonderful environment to learn in. Everyone is smart, and diligent, and competitive, and I think it makes the whole experience that much better.”
Photo from Alexandra’s twitter account.