Up, Up and Away
At 16 Sarah Hughes is making the biggest leap of her life -- from high school kid to Olympic darling
By E.M. Swift
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 herself."
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.
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.
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.