One rumor should be buried straightaway: Sarah Hughes is not a
"normal" kid. Sure, the 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., bears
some of the trappings of normalcy, particularly compared with
some recent skating phenoms--little Taras and Michelles who
moved away from home to train with famous coaches, were schooled
by private tutors, hired agents to land endorsement deals and
keep the press at bay and spent summers touring the country with
Champions on Ice.
Compared with that, yes, Hughes is chicken noodle and chocolate
chip. She got white-knuckle, bats-in-her-belly nervous before
her Olympic debut on Tuesday night, looking every bit the
youngest competitor in the field, which, of course, she is. She
lives at home and is an 11th-grader at Great Neck North High.
Until this hectic Olympic year, she played the violin with the
school orchestra. She likes to make cookies for her brothers,
David, 20, and Matt, 18, and faithfully watches 7th Heaven on
Monday nights with her younger sisters, Emily, 13, and Taylor,
10. (She also has an older sister, Rebecca, 24.) Hughes doesn't
have an agent, doesn't make commercials, skates a limited number
of shows and, most remarkable, doesn't seem to believe that the
world revolves around her wants and needs.
You learn that early when you grow up in a family of six
children. For Hughes the point was driven home extra hard when,
in August 1997, her mother, Amy, was found to have breast
cancer. Sarah was 12 at the time. While Amy (a CPA turned
stay-at-home mom) underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy,
radiation and successful stem-cell transplants (she has been in
remission for three years), the Hughes household didn't revolve
around Sarah's skating. "We didn't direct her toward skating,"
says her father, John, a New York City lawyer who grew up in
Canada and was captain of the 1969-70 Cornell hockey team. "If
I'd directed her anywhere, it would have been to hockey. She
found this herself and took ownership of it when she was 12 and
her mother got sick. She had to get herself up to go to
practices, figure out how to get to and from the rink, learn her
music, choose her costumes, everything. The competitions are
maybe three percent of the process. She had to take it on
That certainly doesn't sound like the girl next door. Normal?
Sarah Hughes is as type A as they come, a precocious
hyperachiever who doesn't have an off switch. "I don't like to
do anything halfway," she says. Hughes learned to tie her own
skates at the age of three so she could race her brothers onto
the backyard rink built by her father. She did her first double
Salchow at five, for heaven's sake, and won the U.S. junior
championships when she was 12, even as she was coping with her
mother's illness. Last March, when Hughes placed third at the
world championships in Vancouver, she was all of 15, and at 16
she is the youngest U.S. competitor in these Olympics.
She's on a fast, but not a one-way, track. She expects to have
choices. "When I'm 25 or 30, I don't want to skate every night
in a show," Hughes says. "I like more order in my life."
You think? Hughes segregates the blouses in her bedroom closet
by sleeve length (sleeveless, short, three-quarters and full)
and color (light tones graduating toward dark). An honors
student, she studies in the car while commuting to practice in
Hackensack, N.J., with her coach, Robin Wagner, behind the
wheel. She sometimes writes papers on a laptop that she plugs
into the cigarette lighter. Hughes takes advanced placement
courses in American history and English, would like to go to an
Ivy League college and, having a long-standing interest in
science, speaks of becoming a doctor. "She's a very
intellectually curious kid," her father says. "She reads The New
York Times every day."
Good thing, that. One never knows when the likes of former
figure skater Condoleezza Rice will call. The national security
adviser gave Hughes a personal tour of the White House on Sept.
7, an experience Hughes wrote about for her school newspaper.
In sum, Hughes is about as normal as Harry Potter's sidekick
Hermione Granger. "There's nothing 'normal' about competing at
this level," John says. "Going to the rink three hours every
day, assuming the positions that they do. That's not normal.
Living at home with five siblings isn't normal either. I'm not
sure anyone strives for normalcy, anyway. It's excellence,
happiness, satisfaction. That's what you hope to see as a parent."
Sarah has been exhibiting those qualities since she started to
compete. Judges have long remarked upon the unbridled joy she
projects. In a sport in which highs and lows are the price of
competing on a blade that's one eighth of an inch across, Hughes
stands out as a model of consistency. She has finished in the
top three in her last 11 national and international
competitions. Hughes's progress at the nationals has been like a
kid knocking off grades in elementary school: fourth at 13,
third at 14, second at 15. In January she suffered a minor
setback when she fell back to third at the nationals after she
singled the back end of her trademark triple Salchow-triple loop
combination, finishing behind six-time champion Michelle Kwan
and 17-year-old Sasha Cohen. But the goal had been to make the
Olympic team. Which Hughes did.
The 5'1" Cohen proved during Tuesday night's Olympic short
program, in which she finished third, that her performance at
the nationals was not a fluke. Her flexibility and natural
gracefulness allow her to assume the most spectacular body
positions of any skater in the world today, particularly during
her spiral sequence. She is proving herself one of those rare
skaters--Oksana Baiul was another--who instantly command the
admiration of international judges the first time they see her.
Cohen has never even competed in the worlds as a senior.
But while Hughes has a well-earned reputation for consistency,
Cohen's track record is shakier in that regard. She burst on the
scene by unexpectedly finishing second at the 2000 nationals but
followed that with an abysmal sixth-place finish at the world
juniors. She missed much of the 2000-01 season with a back
injury and finished behind Hughes in the only two international
competitions in which they faced each other last fall, Skate
America and Trophee Lalique. Since then, though, Cohen has been
skating beautifully, and her debut in the Olympics was nothing
less than stunning.
Hughes overcame her early Olympic jitters to skate a solid
Olympic short, finishing fourth, very much in the hunt for a
medal tonight. But she was not as self-assured as she was last
October, when she beat both Kwan and Russia's Irina Slutskaya at
Skate Canada. It was the first time Kwan had lost to an American
since Tara Lipinski beat her at the 1998 Olympics, and the win
immediately catapulted Hughes from the bronze medal favorite to
a dark horse for gold.
The win was a mixed blessing. With the spotlight on her, Hughes
faltered in her next two competitions, losing to 1999 world
champion Maria Butyrskaya at Trophee Lalique in Paris, then
finishing third to Slutskaya and Kwan in a rematch at the ISU
Grand Prix final in December. Hughes's missteps were suddenly
newsworthy. "I was shocked to see a picture of myself falling on
the front page of a newspaper in Canada," she says. "Before, no
one cared. At first I wasn't happy, then I realized I must be
moving up in the world."
"Subconsciously Sarah probably felt more pressure after she beat
those two girls," says Wagner, who's coached Hughes for the past
four years. "It's one thing to be the kid up and chasing, and
another to be the woman at the top."
Hughes isn't quite there yet. While her mental toughness and
competitiveness are universally admired, her jumping technique
is not. Judges have picked up on the fact that she takes off on
the wrong edge when doing a triple Lutz--Lipinski had the same
flaw--changing it to a "flutz," a hybrid between a flip and a
Lutz. In her Olympic short program the flutz was obvious, and
she was hammered for it by five judges, who gave her technical
marks that ranged from 5.1 to 5.3. (She also got two 5.6s and
two 5.5s.) Hughes also sometimes underrotates her triples,
completing them after she's landed. Her technical marks, as a
consequence, are not as high as they might otherwise be.
Yet. "Salt Lake isn't my whole Olympic future," Hughes says. "I'm
also looking at 2006."
"Our game plan has always been slow and steady," says Wagner.
"Making changes in technique is an evolving process that must be
done with great care and patience."
Wagner, who is also Hughes's choreographer, press liaison,
confidante and best friend, successfully lobbied against
Hughes's continuing to go to regular classes after October so
she could concentrate on her skating through the Games. With two
training sessions a day of 90 minutes each, three hours of
commuting between Great Neck and Hackensack, interviews,
stretching, reading, meals and sleep, there just weren't enough
hours in a day. "I knew the kind of student she was, what a
perfectionist, and that it would be too much for her to try to
do both," Wagner says.
"Right now skating's my whole life," Hughes says. "It has to be
at this level."
"We tried to keep her in a class environment with kids her own
age as long as we could," John says, "but I don't see this year
as putting a stop to her education. She's become more mature and
better educated this year than any other year of her life.
Visiting the White House. Dealing with the media. Traveling. The
Olympics. It's been an adventure."
A bemused expression crosses his face when he's asked about
Sarah's progress in taming the notorious flutz. "That's Robin's
domain. We don't get involved in that stuff," he says. "As a
parent, the flutz, or whatever they call it, isn't important.
It's all about the smile at the end of the performance."
It's normally bright.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE HUGHES FAMILY Ice, ice babies: At six Hughes was rocking the rink (opposite, left) and looking up to Kristi Yamaguchi (opposite, right); now (below), she and Cohen (left) are the future of their sport.
COLOR PHOTO: NANCIE BATTAGLIA [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: CARL YARBROUGH (COHEN) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER Wagner (right), who has shaped Hughes's career for the past four years, says that changes in technique require patience.
Hughes, who learned to tie her own skates at age three, did
her first double Salchow at five.
School days? "Right now skating is my whole life. It has to be,
at this level," says Hughes.