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 way.
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 Chlo� 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.