Sarah Hughes's Olympic gold medal in figure skating is the sweetest story in sports this century, and here's why.
One, it proves parents don't have to ship their eight-year-olds to some coaching guru a thousand miles away. Tara Lipinski's dad didn't live with his daughter after she was 10. Tim Goebel's dad didn't after his son was 11. But Sarah's father, John, wasn't just a check-sending service. He got to see his little girl grow right there in the family's ranch house in Kings Point, N.Y. "I don't see how this moment could be as joyous if I hadn't been with her the whole time," he says.
Two, it saved the Salt Lake City Olympics, which were so full of bribery, cheating and protests you could've sworn you were at the Little League World Series. Then here comes a straight-A student snatching the gold from fourth place when the only thing she really wanted to accomplish was "eating lunch in the [athletes' village] cafeteria." Delicious.
Three, it saved figure skating. Until Hughes, this was a sport in which anything couldn't happen. Hughes had been out-skating diva Michelle Kwan for two years. In speed, and in height and difficulty of jumps, Hughes had blown by Kwan as if she were a 1975 Plymouth Duster. In Salt Lake City the judges finally caught up. That's the lovely irony of this story. Without the stench of Skategate, judges wouldn't have been free to do the right thing. Thank you, Marie-Reine Le Gougne.
Four, it's sweet for Sarah's spunky mom, Amy, who a few years ago spent more than three months in the hospital beating breast cancer, chemo, radiation, stem-cell transplants, nausea and pain. Her family pulled her through it. Oldest daughter Rebecca would fly in from Harvard on weekends to help take care of the younger girls. Oldest son Dave gave blood platelets. John went to skating competitions and held up his cell phone so Amy could listen to Sarah's music and hear the applause. Seems as if every time he did that, Amy could take more platelets than usual. "She's my Dr. Sarah," Amy says.
Five, it's going to unnerve Sarah's hilarious 18-year-old brother, Matt. When he's home from college, he is not allowed to enter her room, not allowed to eat all her home-baked chocolate-chip cookies and has to share a bathroom with the little brat. "Dang," Matt says, "now that she's Olympic champion, do I have to leave the toilet seat down?"
Six, it provides hope to every young female figure skater who's more of a checking forward than a sequined ice queen. Hughes is a pure jock who never went to Frozen Smile and Fake Wave School. Her smile is huge and real and looks great under that Brett Hull nose, doesn't it?
Seven, it's proof that grounded kids soar the highest. Sarah, a junior at Great Neck North High, used to play violin in the school orchestra, does her own laundry and has to get her homework done. She even wrote two articles for the school paper after she left for Salt Lake City. This kid never believed her worth was tied to her latest score. So while Kwan and Irina Slutskaya bonked under finals pressure, Hughes looked like a kid running in a meadow.
Eight, it may not even be the coolest thing this girl ever does. She's as unbeatable as a photo speeding ticket. At five, her goal was to win an Olympic gold medal. At 16, her goal is to score "in the high 1,500s" on her SATs. (She brings her study guide to practice.) She hopes to become a doctor. If she ends up as Belle in Disney's Beauty and the Beast ice show, I'll eat my laptop.
Nine, have I mentioned it's about family? Two hours before she was to skate, Hughes started getting butterflies the size of Cessnas. She called Matt on his cell phone. "Matty, tell me a joke," she said. So Matt says, "Grasshopper walks into a bar. Bartender says, 'Hey, we got a drink named after you.' And the grasshopper goes, 'You got a drink named Irving?' " Sarah laughed. Hey, your family pulls you through.