08/10/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

Hannah Hardaway on Life Lessons from the Olympic Winter Games

For Women & Co., by Lauren Hall

Hannah Hardaway -- now a nine-year member of the U.S. Ski Team -- won her first of five Junior National Freestyle Skiing Championships at age 13. She then went on become a six-time National Champion and a member of Team USA during the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games. After retiring from competitive skiing, she graduated from Cornell University with a degree in business and later attended the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. She is now a professional photographer based out of Jackson, Wyoming.

How did you envision your future after competitive skiing?
I didn't have specific plans, but I was always realistic that there would be life after skiing and made decisions throughout my life (sometimes steered more by my parents than myself, admittedly) that would ensure I'd have as many opportunities as possible when that time came.

Growing up, I was equally committed to gymnastics as I was skiing, and played three varsity sports (in addition to skiing) throughout high school. By the time I graduated, I was on the U.S. Ski Team, but there was no question whether I could take a year off to ski full-time. I went straight into Cornell despite the fact that it was 1998, the year of the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano and even played collegiate softball. By the time I decided to retire from competitive skiing, I was only a few credits away from a college degree and had a wide variety of experiences under my belt.

What was the transition like from training for the Olympic Winter Games to the traditional workforce?
The transition was relatively smooth since I made the decision to move on by choice. Also, I had opportunities to stay active in the industry by designing and testing skiing equipment for sponsors, doing media appearances and serving as a brand ambassador. During that time, I was lucky to meet many professional photographers and pick their brains about everything from lens selection to recommended equipment to various techniques and strategies. This was the beginning of my transition from one side of the lens to the other.

Are there advantages that an active, sports-minded person can bring to business?
So many of the qualities that were instrumental as an athlete relate directly to my success as a business owner: being goal driven, focused, determined and disciplined, as well as having a strong work ethic and self-confidence.

What was the most frustrating thing you've learned about owning your own business?
That my work is never done! I can always be doing something to make my business better. On the one hand, I love that I'm always learning and I thrive on challenging myself, but on the other hand, I don't get to leave my work behind at the office at the end of the day.

What kind of commitment does it take to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games? What sacrifices did you have to make?
I feel that my experience has been different than that of most of my teammates as I was not solely focused on skiing for most of my career -- I only skied weekends up until the year before I competed in the Nagano Winter Games. Still, I suppose I was forced to grow up pretty fast and had to take on a lot of responsibility at an early age. I've also never really had much downtime -- that's something I'm still trying to figure out!

What advice do you have for parents who want their child to become an accomplished athlete?
The single most important thing a parent can do for a child is to offer support for whatever it is that they want to do. I'm not sure how my parents did it, but they were (and still are!) incredibly supportive of everything I do while never seeming as if they were pushing me in any particular direction.

What achievement makes you the most proud?
I was on the World Cup skiing circuit when I tore my ACL three weeks before the Nagano Winter Games. After two years of physical rehab, I had to go back and compete on the North American circuit and work my way back up. At the end of the season, I managed to beat all of the women coming back from the World Cup and won my first national championship. It was an incredibly emotional accomplishment for me after the long road back from my knee injury.

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