It was 1:30 in the morning and the eyes were still bright, the
smiles wide, the energy pulsing, stoked by the powerful turbines
of a dream come true. The Hughes children, all six of them, were
seated at a circular table in the Marriott University Park early
last Friday--gold medalist Sarah, 16, flanked by her brothers
David, 20, and Matt, 18, and sisters Rebecca, 24, Emily, 13, and
Taylor, 10. Every one of them was playing hooky from a school
back East to share Sarah's Olympic moment, and their mother, Amy,
was slightly horrified by her complicity in the plan.
"I'm the one who's always talking about the importance of an
education," said Amy, a breast cancer survivor, her eyes shining
as she soaked in the scene. Matt had planned to take the red-eye
back to New York on Thursday night, but Amy had nixed that once
they learned that Sarah, exceeding all their expectations, had
pulled off one of the most shocking and endearing figure skating
upsets in Olympic history. Her life, they knew, would never be
the same. "All my children," Amy said in wonderment. "It's so
exciting. I never let them stay up this late."
The second-youngest U.S. Olympian had skated the performance of
her life to leap from fourth to first and win the marquee event
of the Games. Everyone wanted a piece of that story. An
unpretentious kid from Great Neck, N.Y., had not only knocked
off the two favorites, Michelle Kwan of the U.S. and Irina
Slutskaya of Russia, but also lifted her sport from the mire of
the pairs' judging scandal by providing the most enduring image
of the figure skating competition: her joyous, uninhibited
reaction to the news that she'd won.
Hughes doesn't even have an agent. So within hours of her
triumph her father, John, a New York attorney wearing an FDNY
hat, and her coach, Robin Wagner, weren't guzzling champagne.
They were sifting through a pile of interview requests presented
to them by U.S. Figure Skating Association media relations
director Bob Dunlop. The wake-up call for the Today Show was
less than four hours away. Sarah had to prepare two numbers for
the Olympic skating exhibition that evening. The Tonight Show
wanted her on Monday, the Grammys and Saturday Night Live later
in the week. On and on it went. The big whoopee was well under
March 4, 2002
Two things took priority. First, Sarah wanted to relax in the
hot tub at the house outside Salt Lake City where her family had
been ensconced. (Her siblings had raved about the views of the
Wasatch Range from the tub.) And she wanted to go to the gold
medal hockey game on Sunday. All other decisions could wait till
tomorrow. "Tell Leno we'll sleep on it," John Hughes said,
chuckling at the absurdity of such an utterance, before shooing
his golden girl to bed.
Miracles on ice seemingly come out of nowhere, but they almost
always follow a carefully scripted plan and involve
strong-minded athletes who are resolved to carry them out. Such
was the case with Hughes. Her Olympic journey really started
with her third-place finish at the U.S. nationals in January, a
placement that stuck in her craw. It wasn't finishing behind the
six-time U.S. champion Kwan that bugged her; it was being
upstaged by 17-year-old Sasha Cohen of Westwood, Calif., who by
finishing second became the spicy new flavor in skating. Before
Cohen emerged, that had been Hughes's role.
Hughes and the 44-year-old Wagner, who is also Hughes's
choreographer, mentor and best friend, started making big
changes. Wagner consulted with a respected judge who concurred
that the music Hughes had used in her free skate at the
nationals, Daphnis et Chloe by Ravel, was not upbeat enough and
that her program needed to end on a crescendo. So Wagner recut
the last 90 seconds, choosing another selection from the
recording that she thought might have the emotional impact to
bring an Olympic audience to its feet. This was playing to
Hughes's strengths. She can't match the elegant Kwan or the
balletic Cohen in a contest of stylistic grace. However, in
terms of expressing the pure joy of skating, no one can touch her.
Her hair was restyled. Noted designer Jef Billings was hired to
make more elegant outfits. But by far the most important change
Hughes made in the five weeks between nationals and the Olympics
was adding a second difficult triple-triple combination jump to
her free skate. "I was coming to the Olympics as the third-place
finisher from our country, so I needed to pull out everything I
could do," she says.
"She's an athlete," says Mahlon Bradley, a former competitive
skater who was a U.S. team doctor at Salt Lake City. "She's like
Jimmy Shea, the skeleton driver. She gets angry at something
before she competes. That's how she motivates herself. She was
angry about her placement at nationals."
When Hughes took the ice for her short program on Tuesday,
though, she looked more nervous than mad. She was the fifth of
27 skaters, a poor draw, and with tension etched on her face,
she started mechanically. Hughes made a couple of minor
technical errors, and while it was a good skate on balance, five
of the judges hammered her on her technical marks, with a range
from 5.1 to 5.3. When the last skater was done, Hughes stood
fourth, behind Kwan, Slutskaya and Cohen.
Wagner said later that if Hughes couldn't finish in the top two
in the short program, which accounts for one third of the
scoring, it was better to be fourth than third. Sitting fourth,
she had nothing to protect. It was an invitation to cut loose.
"Wait for the music" is usually the last thing Wagner tells
Hughes before she skates to center ice to start her long
program, a reminder that she must pause once the music begins.
On Thursday night Hughes beat Wagner to it.
"I know. I'll let the music start," Hughes said, clasping hands
with her coach. She was completely in the moment. In her eyes
was a spark of fire, maybe anger, that caught Bradley's
attention as he stood behind Wagner. This was no timid ice
princess. "You could tell she was going to be great," he said.
Hughes wasn't worried about gold. She said later that she wasn't
even thinking about medals, which she usually does. She was
thinking, I'll show them. She was angry, all right. About
nationals. About her fourth-place standing. Now she'd show
everyone what she could do. "Those four minutes," 1994 gold
medalist Oksana Baiul said knowingly on Friday night, "can
change your life."
Hughes landed her first double Axel and began feeding off the
crowd's roars. She landed her trademark triple Salchow-triple
loop combination, the most difficult jump any woman would do
that night. The program was gaining momentum, but she still
hadn't done enough. To move from fourth to first, to bypass a
four-time world champion, which Kwan is, you must make history.
Midway through her program Hughes did precisely that when she
landed her second triple-triple, this one a toe loop-loop
combination. It was the one she'd added after nationals. Wagner,
jumping up and down at rinkside, began to hyperventilate.
"Just breathe," Bradley quietly cautioned in her ear.
The rest of Hughes's program--what remained of those reworked 90
seconds--was a blur of giddiness and joy. Hughes was screaming
from her heart, "I love skating!" and the reaction it drew from
the 16,500 in the Salt Lake Ice Center was cathartic. Flowers
and toys and thunderous applause rained down seconds after
Hughes ended her final combination spin, and she exchanged an
eye-popping look of disbelief with Wagner. "What did I just do?"
she seemed to ask.
When Hughes reached the end of the rink where Wagner was
waiting, the coach wouldn't let her leave the ice. "Turn
around," she instructed. "Close your eyes." The audience was
still going wild. "Soak it in."
"That was her Olympic moment," Sarah's mother said. The marks?
The placement? It didn't seem to matter at the time. Not enough
to ruin that feeling. She'd done what she set out to do. The
judges, with the top three still to skate, marked her
conservatively--mostly 5.8s with a couple of 5.7s. Not a single
5.9. There was still plenty of room for Hughes to be passed.
Hughes and Wagner retired to a quiet place--the men's locker
room--to savor what had happened. Hughes called her mom, who was
in the arena. "She never does that," Amy said. "She wanted to
know what I thought. She was so happy. When it's your kid,
that's all you want. I didn't care what the other skaters did. I
didn't even watch."
Neither did Wagner, though after Cohen skated, the coach was
curious enough to call her husband, Jerome Grossman, who was in
the crowd, to see whether Hughes had moved ahead of her rival.
Once Wagner learned that she had, that Hughes had won at least a
bronze, the two talked about what it would mean. "I told her it
didn't really matter what color the medal was, that her
performance had endeared her to millions of people," Wagner
says. "I reminded her to be very gracious. We compared it to the
way Michelle handled her silver medal in Nagano."
Just about then Kwan, who'd stayed around four long years for
another crack at gold, was two-footing the front end of what was
supposed to be a triple toe-triple toe combination, a jump that
had eluded her all season. She then fell on a triple flip, and
the energy drained from her program. The favorite would finish
Slutskaya, skating last, seemed set. Kwan had self-destructed,
and the gold medal was dangling there for the 23-year-old
Russian champion to snatch. If she too collapsed and finished
behind Hughes and Kwan in the free skate, Kwan would win her
gold after all. The only chance for Hughes was for Slutskaya to
finish between the two Americans. "It was like drawing the last
card of a royal flush," John Hughes said.
Right from the start Slutskaya was slow. Like Kwan, she was
succumbing to the intense pressure. She failed to land either of
her two triple-triples and spun out of a triple flip--the same
jump that had ruined Kwan. The Russian federation would protest
that Slutskaya was undermarked, victimized by a giant conspiracy
against Russian athletes in Salt Lake City. In truth, though,
she was lucky the judges placed her second. She was tentative
and uninspiring throughout.
An NBC cameraman, shooting Hughes and Wagner quietly huddling on
a bench in the men's locker room, gave them the news. "You won,"
he said. "Sarah won."
Their spontaneous reaction provided the final exclamation point
on a startlingly unscripted evening, one that ended in a
knee-buckling, squealing heap on that locker room floor. Having
left everything out on the ice, Hughes wasn't about to opt for
decorum now. This was a new generation of ice princess. What she
was selling, America was tickled pink to buy.
"I was coming to the Olympics as the third-place finisher from
our country, so I needed to pull out everything I could."
"She was so happy," Amy said. "When it's your kid, that's all
you want. I didn't care what the other skaters did."