By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

When Ponte Vedra High School student Caroline Hughes needed a first period class for her modified senior schedule, she selected a weightlifting class to get stronger for the many sports she plays; however, it was reserved for the football team only. Hughes’ first question: “How do I join the football team?” The next day she was on the football field in pads and jumped in as a kicker. With that, Hughes became the first female at Ponte Vedra High to play on the football team. It was a natural fit for Hughes, who had played soccer her whole life and boys’ lacrosse in middle school. When she made her first kick and came off the field, all the players hit her helmet and gave her fist bumps as they would with any other player. “The adrenaline rush that overcame me when I made my first kick felt unreal. It was great knowing that not only had I made history at my school, but every single one of my teammates was there cheering for me to do so,” said Hughes, who would practice before school and after practice every day. While on the football field kicking and throwing, Hughes caught the eye of the track coach who asked if she had ever thrown a javelin. “I had no idea what that even was,” said Hughes. In less than 12 weeks from throwing her first javelin, she took first place in Districts, third place in Regionals and continued onto State. All the while, Hughes maintains a 4.26 GPA, works multiple jobs and belongs to a variety of clubs.

Hughes will head to the United States Naval Academy in the fall where she will be on the school’s track and field team for javelin. Her dream job is to become a pilot. 

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Q: Which high school accomplishments stand out the most to you? 
A: As far as athletics, the accomplishments that I am most proud of would be qualifying for the State Championship events in three different sports and being the first female to play football at my high school. To make State in one sport is challenging enough, but to have had the opportunity to compete in wrestling, weightlifting, and track at the State Championship level makes me so proud. Academically, it would be receiving an official appointment to the Naval Academy. 

Q: You are a five-sport athlete. Do you have a favorite sport? 
A: For each sport I do, there’s also a reason I fell in love with it. I loved football because of the way the boys took me under their wing and treated me like another guy on the team. I loved track because it pushed me out of my comfort zone. I loved wrestling for the work and practice it took. I loved soccer because it was one of the only sports I’ve stuck with my entire childhood; however, in the end, I will always favor weightlifting. I love weightlifting because of my girls, my coach, the screaming at every meet, the energy that radiates throughout the platforms (whether you’re on the rival team or not), and the fact that you aren’t there to beat other people, but rather to become a better version of yourself. 

Q: What was it like to have your mom (Coach Karen Hughes) as your weightlifting coach? 
A: I truly loved the experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. She completely transformed my lifting, and I can’t even begin to describe how amazing she was as a coach this year. She turned us into a tight-knit family. The environment she created in that weight room is a core memory for me, and I wish it wasn’t my time to graduate just yet. She gave me a lot of advice and fixed my form, but at the end of the day I have to thank her for just being my mom. I cannot thank my mom enough for everything she did this season. Not only for me, but for the other 30 plus daughters that now see her as an empowered woman in their lives. Ponte Vedra High went from never having a female lifter make it to state to having five girls qualify this year. 

Q: What inspires you to work so hard? 
A: I have always been a hard working kid. I pretty much took the “middle child” status and ran with it. I don’t think I am ever satisfied with where I am, so I keep striving to be better.

Photo courtesy Karen Hughes 
Caroline Hughes

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