The surprising Sara Hughes

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Sarah Hughes, the world's newest darling on ice, had that naive sparkle.

"There's more I want to accomplish, both in skating and in life," she said as she adoringly glanced down at her women's figure skating gold medal.

Hughes is 16 going on 17.

Hughes, who attends Great Neck, N.Y., High School, entered the Winter Olympics as the No. 3 skater on the U.S. women's team. She leaves as the No. 1 in the world, having spoiled the expected gold medal dual between America's Michelle Kwan and Russia's Irina Slutskaya.

Hughes said she never expected a medal at these Olympics, much less gold. "Gosh, there were some world-class skaters here," she said.

Fourth after the short program, she catapulted to first place after an energetic, dazzling performance in the free skate in which she executed seven triple jumps, an Olympic record for women. All the skaters ahead of her (Kwan, Slutskaya and Cohen) either fell or had slight flaws.

After the skate, as Hughes huddled in a corner of the dressing room with her coach, Robin Wagner, she was actually oblivious to her chances for gold.

"I called my husband after Sasah (Cohen) had finished to learn her scores and to find out if Sarah had switched places with Sasha (in third place), which was really our goal," said Wagner. "I knew Sarah had skated her best free skate ever and if we got some kind of medal that would be terrific.

"Once we knew we had bronze, Sarah and I sat down and talked about the Olympic experience and what we had learned and how special this performance would always be to her. We sort of watched Michelle and Irina, but not very much."

After Kwan fell, Slutskaya was the final skater with a clear shot at gold. Slutskaya doubled, instead of tripled a toe-loop coming out of a triple-lutz, and her performance, appeared tentative. When she finished, her reaction was more of disgust than pleasure.

"I saw the scores, but I wasn't clear on the marks because I can't see so far anymore," Wagner said. "Then, I heard an NBC cameraman filming us say, 'You have the gold.' We were both shocked because that wasn't even on the radar screen."

So both student and coach momentarily gave the deer-in-the-headlight look, then fell to the floor with hugs, exchanging shouts of "Oh My God!" "Oh My God!"

"I was just sitting there happy my marks had improved so much over the short program," Hughes said.

How many times has she executed the decisive triple-triple combinations in practice?

Hughes and her coach huddled and calmly debated for a few seconds.

"Let's just say she did them when it counted," Wagner said.

While the glow was apparent in Hughes' eyes, the disappointment was stark in the face of Kwan, the silver medalist in Nagano who had seemingly been on a four-year quest for Olympic gold. She ended up with bronze.

She said she rushed too much into a triple-flip, triple-toe, the maneuver on which she fell -- on the ice and out of gold medal contention.

"I was more disappointed in Nagano because I skated much better," she said. "Tonight was one of those nights things didn't go my way. They were different skates, but I ended up crying after both."

Slutskaya said she was surprised at her marks for presentation, which were overall lower than Hughes.

"I had worked so hard on those second marks," she said. "In all competitions this year, the second marks are higher marks. I see 5.8 or 5.9. Now, I see 5.6 and 5.7. I'm shocked. That's it."

Consequently, Hughes, who wants to attend medical school and eventually become a doctor, has become skating's newest diva. With it will become pressure, some of it to turn pro like Nagano gold medalist Tara Lipinski did at age 15.

"I don't think we've seen the tip of the iceberg yet with Sarah," Wagner said. "There will be pressure, but no one can ever take away what she did tonight."

"I'm 16 years old and I still have a lot of exciting events in my life," said Hughes, already rated female skating's greatest jumper.

Hughes added, "Skating's not a lifelong goal. I will continue to skate because I love to skate and not because other people expect me to win or because I expect to win. I want to get better.

"Some people never have the performance of their life. I was fortunate to have it in the free skate of the Olympics."

(David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris News Service team covering the Winter Olympics).

OLY-marginilia for Sat. 23rd (483)

Saturday's TV listings

All times EST

MSNBC 10 a.m.-noon -- Figure skating: champions gala highlights.

NBC, 1:30-5:30 p.m. -- Hockey, men's bronze medal game. Speed skating: women's 5000.

NBC 8-11:30 p.m. -- Alpine skiing: men's slalom. Short-track speed skating: women's 1000; men's 500; men's 5000 relay. Bobsleigh: four-man, final 2 of 4 runs. Cross country: Men's 50K.

Today's Olympic lesson

Many American Olympians have been connected with food in some way during their careers.

The first pair of skis that biathlete Kristina Sabasteanski received were won in a raffle by her brother at a local fast-food restaurant. Biathlete Dan Campbell was once a bagel baker. The parents of Michelle Kwan run a Chinese restaurant in Torrance, Calif.

In order to lose weight, nordic combined skiier Todd Lodwick gave up hot tamales, Peppermint patties and Skittles. Speedskater Derek Parra eats a pack of Fig Newtons the night before every race. One of speed skater's J.P. Schilling's goals is to catch a world record tuna fish.

Stats and numbers

5,788,000: Approximate feet of toilet tissue that will be used at the Olympic Village during the Games.

Neat to know

The roots of biathlon date back to 3000 BC, which technically makes it the oldest of all Olympic winter sports.

Hair day

The most multi-colored hair of the Olympics probably belongs to Martin Rettl, the silver medalist in men's skeleton. He died his hair to represent the five colors of the Olympic flag plus the colors in the Austrian flags. He even had his hair cut into Olympics rings in the back.

Changing names

Figure-skating and short-track competitions are held at the Salt Lake Ice Center, which is actually the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz.

The name was changed for the Olympics because Olympic rules don't allow the competition venues to carry corporate names. Since Delta is a sponsor of these Olympics (the official airline), Olympic organizers have allowed the Delta name and logo to be seen on the outside of the arena.

Story time

There are actually three short stories today, each representing weird feats.

In 1984, Marja-Liisa Hamalainen of Finland, after winning her third Olympic gold medal in nordic skiiing, jumped over a fence to avoid Finnish reporters. The reporters jumped a fence also and a hot pursuit began. They finally caught the athlete and cornered her for comments.

In 1998 at Nagano, two-man bobsledders from Canada and Italy finished in a dead heat after 5,440 meters and four timed runs. The Canadian team of Pierre Lueders and David MacEarchern and Gunter Huber and Antonio Tartaglia of Italy were both awarded gold medals.

American freestyle aerialist Eric Bergoust wanted to be a stunt man or pilot when he grew up. As a youngster, he practiced for that by jumping off the chimney of his house and landing on mattress pads on the lawn below.

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