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Gold Fishbowl

What do you do after you've won the Olympic gold medal? At 17, Hughes faces a ton of choices

January 14, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — What if mathematics and fate hadn't worked precisely in Sarah Hughes' favor at Salt Lake City? What if she had stumbled ever so slightly in her long program, or if Michelle Kwan hadn't fallen in hers?

If Hughes had won the Olympic bronze medal instead of gold, how would her life be different now?

"I remember hoping and praying and thinking, 'Please, let this be it. Let this be right,' " Hughes said of the moment she and Coach Robin Wagner, sitting in a locker room at the Delta Center, learned of her victory from a TV cameraman and sank to the floor amid shrieks of joy. "I knew what we'd been through, and although I was only 16, it was a difficult and very long road with a lot of commitment. I've been skating since I was about 3 years old, seriously.

"It was amazing. First, I wanted to make sure, 'Are they correct?' In case they weren't correct, I wanted to enjoy it."

It was correct. Skating to "Daphnis et Chloe," Hughes layered a feeling of airy delicacy over an intricate routine. When Kwan, Irina Slutskaya and Sasha Cohen faltered, Hughes made the unprecedented leap from fourth to first.

"I wouldn't say there was nothing to lose and everything to gain because, to me, there's a big difference between fourth or fifth," she said. "I do well with a lot of freedom, and I went out with a free spirit and clear mind."

It was the performance of her life, and it spawned a whirlwind. Everyone wanted a piece of her, whether for her benefit or theirs. A friend says the Hughes family divides the world into two categories: "before people," whom they knew and trusted prior to her victory, and those who began glad-handing when her star rose.

And it has risen to dizzying heights. Her picture has been on Wheaties boxes and Campbell's soup cans, and she appeared with her parents and five siblings in a TV special centered on their loving, playful bond. A modern "Ozzie and Harriet," with the kids as skaters and scholars and Harriet played by warm and earthy Amy Hughes, a breast-cancer survivor with a "Lawn Guyland" accent.

"She's certainly not the kid I knew a year ago," Wagner said. "Her core values remain the same. She's a good girl, a nice person, a caring person, and that certainly hasn't changed. She's a little more guarded, maybe. Not in a negative way, but along the lines of, 'Who are really my friends?'

"I think her circle of people close to her has gotten a little bit tighter, a little bit closer. And I think that's important. I think that's good. As long as she has people she can fully open up to and trust and talk to, she'll get through this fine."

The world has met Sarah Hughes and she has met the world. Already blessed with the smarts to win admission to Harvard, the Great Neck (N.Y.) North High senior marvels at the vistas that have opened before her because of that one magical night.

"It's not a four-minute performance. It's four minutes and then a lifetime after that," said Hughes, who turned 17 three months after the Games. "I didn't think it would affect the rest of my life, but other Olympic champions told me life would never be the same afterward. And of course I laughed in their face when they told me, but what can I say? They were right -- so far."

Hughes can make history again this week in Dallas, at the U.S. Championships. No female U.S. Olympic figure skating gold medalist has competed in the national championships the next year: not Tenley Albright, the first U.S. women's Olympic champion in 1956, Carol Heiss, 1960; Peggy Fleming, 1968; Dorothy Hamill, 1976; Kristi Yamaguchi, 1992, or Tara Lipinski, 1998. In fact, Hughes is the first female figure skating gold medalist to keep her Olympic eligibility since East Germany's Katarina Witt, who won in 1984, then repeated in 1988.

But Albright and the other female U.S. gold medalists had won national titles before their Olympic triumphs, and Hughes has not. She was third at the 2000 competition, second in 2001 and third last year at Los Angeles. She was fifth at the 2000 World Championships and third in 2001 but skipped last year's event because post-Olympic obligations and schoolwork cut too deeply into her training time.

"There's a lot of challenges here," said her father, John, a lawyer and former Cornell hockey player. "The Olympics are obviously the most high profile, but kids have a lot of other challenges that are less high profile, like growing up and going to school and all that. She's the type of kid with intellectual curiosity. She doesn't pass up too much, and wants to try it all."

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