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Enjoying Her Golden Year

Hughes' life has greatly changed since winning Olympic figure skating title, but she has managed to keep her perspective

July 12, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She has met politicians and movie directors, thrown out the first pitch at a New York Yankee game and been welcomed in cities she had only read about.

But no matter what heady honors Sarah Hughes has received since she won the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating with an exquisite but powerful performance in February, she hasn't lost her perspective--or her appreciation of how close she came to missing out on all those thrills.

"I've been pretty busy, but I've actually been having a great time," said Hughes, who turned 17 in May and recently finished her junior year at Great Neck High in New York. "I've met people I've always wanted to meet and gone across the country on tour. I can't wait to go to L.A., because that's where it all began."

In truth, her Olympic odyssey began long before the U.S. Championships in January at Staples Center, where the Olympic team was picked. Yet, had it not been for her third-place finish in that event--a disappointment after her runner-up finish the year before and her bronze-medal performance at the 2001 World Championships--she might not have developed the fire or the perfectly calibrated program that propelled her past favorites Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya at Salt Lake City.

Without the second triple-triple combination jump she and coach Robin Wagner added for the Olympics, and the intense mood Wagner created by reediting her music from Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe," Hughes might not have made the unprecedented leap from fourth place after the short program to gold medalist. And Hughes probably wouldn't be a headliner on the John Hancock Champions on Ice tour, which stopped at the Long Beach Arena on Thursday night and will be at the Arrowhead Pond on Saturday for matinee and evening performances.

"It made all the difference," Hughes said of enhancing the difficulty and drama of her free skate program after the U.S. Championships.

"It was the most instrumental thing we did, and one of the greatest moves I've ever made. And one of the most risky moves. I knew it would be really great or really terrible."

Her performance was a breathtaking blend of athleticism and artistry. Skating with a nothing-to-lose sense of freedom, she became the surprise winner when Kwan two-footed one jump and fell on another, and Slutskaya couldn't match Hughes' demanding jump combinations. A month after she had cried in frustration at the U.S. Championships, Hughes cried tears of joy, a shining memory she will carry the rest of her life.

"I've seen the tape several times," she said. "It was such a great moment. But I really don't need to see the tape. I remember everything."

Those four minutes turned her life into a whirlwind. Besieged by requests for appearances and endorsements, she limited her acceptances so she could catch up on schoolwork. She did get her picture on a Wheaties box, and she agreed to represent General Electric and its "Heroes for Health" program. As part of her involvement in the program, which commends achievements in medicine, she will visit a hospital in Los Angeles this week to meet doctors and researchers.

She will also star in two skating specials for NBC, which is owned by GE. The first will be taped this summer for showing later this year, and the second will air next year. But as she chatted on a cell phone on the way to a Champions on Ice performance last week, she was like any busy teenager, grabbing a moment to relax in the back of the tour bus.

"I get more attention now, and I'm more recognizable, I guess," she said. "People recognize me for something so positive, so it's nice to be able to share that with so many people who watched it. That's what's been so stunning, that so many people saw it. That's nice, because I feel I know a lot more people now."

Also among the Champions on Ice stars are Kwan, the Torrance native who added a bronze medal at Salt Lake City to her 1998 Olympic silver medal, and Slutskaya, who won silver at the Olympics and won her first world title in March in a field that lacked Hughes. Sasha Cohen of Laguna Niguel, second at the U.S. Championships and fourth at Salt Lake City in her Olympic debut, is also performing.

Among the men, Olympic gold medalist Alexei Yagudin, silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko and bronze medalist Tim Goebel, who trains in El Segundo, are scheduled to skate. So are ice dance gold medalists Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat.

Hughes knows audiences and critics expect more of her since her exhilarating triumph, and she's prepared.

"Obviously, what I did is not something that happens every day," she said. "I expect great things from myself, also. Maybe people will expect me to win everything. If I knew I was going to win every time or lose every time, it wouldn't be very interesting, would it?"

Whatever happens, Wagner expects Hughes to face it with poise.

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