Sarah Hughes Biography
Chronology, Awards And Accomplishments, Further InformationCONTACT INFORMATION
American figure skater
American figure skater Sarah Hughes is among the most consistent competitors in the sport, but no one expected her show at the 2003 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hughes, just sixteen years old, upset both the favorite, Michelle Kwan, and other strong contenders to take the gold medal in women's figure skating.
Hughes was born on May 2, 1985 in Great Neck, New York. She is the fourth of six children of John, a lawyer and former hockey player, and Amy Hughes, an accountant. She began skating at age three in the backyard rink, following the lead of her two older brothers and sister. Her parents bought her hockey skates, but Hughes was incredibly competitive from an early age, and wanted to skate by herself. When she started taking classes, it was obvious that she had natural ability; she quickly mastered moves that challenged other skaters her age. She was a jumping whiz and began training with a coach, Patti Johnson, at age four. By the time she was five, Hughes knew she wanted to skate for the rest of her life.
As word traveled about the precocious young skater, Hughes was invited to skate in ice shows and exhibitions, performing in front of thousands of people. She loved being the center of attention, and thrived on the
crowds. At age six she was part of a show that included Kristi Yamaguchi, whom she had just watched win the gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games. She appeared on a Christmas special with Kathie Lee Gifford, and did a European tour with famous Russian coach Natalia Dubova and the world ice dance champions. She was friends with figure skating legends Scott Hamilton, JoJo Starbuck, and Peggy Fleming by the time she was eight years old. When Hughes was nine, choreographer Robin Wagner joined her team to help prepare her for competitions. Wagner would later become her coach. She entered her first major competition in 1996 at age ten, the North Atlantic Regional, and came in third place in the novice division. In 1997, she placed first.
When she was twelve, Hughes decided to compete in the junior category, the penultimate level in women's figure skating. While other skaters left home to skate with the best coaches, it was important to Hughes that she remain with her family in Great Neck. As Hughes began training for her first junior competitions, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, which made Hughes glad she chose to stay home. Her mother encouraged her to keep skating. After surgery and chemotherapy, Amy Hughes was too ill to travel, but managed to make it to Philadelphia to see her daughter win the gold medal at the 1998 Junior National Championships. She ultimately survived the cancer.
Hughes was invited to skate on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, a series of international competitions. Before she graduated junior high school, she'd skated at the Hungarian Trophee in Budapest, the Mexico Cup in Mexico City, and the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia. When she had skated everything she could in Juniors, and decided to move on to the Senior level at age thirteen. There, she would compete against seasoned skaters like 1996 European champion Irina Slutskaya, 1999 world champion Maria Butyrskaya, and 1998 Olympic silver medallist Michelle Kwan.
Pubescent growth spurts have been the downfall of many a skater. They learn to maneuver their bodies on the ice as girls, but have trouble adapting when they start developing fuller bodies. Hughes's success in the Juniors did not guarantee her success later on. Luckily, Hughes' childhood gawkiness evolved into grace and poise. The ballet lessons Hughes took from the age of three to fourteen paid off. Hughes was second behind Kwan in the 1999 National Championships as they entered the long program, or free-skate competition. An extremely challenging program saved her from catastrophe after two falls, and she finished in a respectable fourth place. As a result, she was able to go on to the 1999 World Championships, where she finished in seventh place. The next year, as a rite of passage, Hughes had her girlhood ponytail lopped off in lieu of a more sophisticated short cut, and had her braces removed. She skated to fifth place in the 2000 World Championships.
While at Great Neck North High School, Hughes was skating two-and-a-half hours and conditioning two hours, six days a week. She got up at four or five in the morning to skate before school, and ultimately sought out tutors and worked with her teachers via e-mail when her competition schedule got too dense.
By 2001, Hughes was a regular figure on the podium at the senior level. She placed second behind Kwan in the Nationals and third behind Kwan and Irina Slutskaya at the Worlds. Four months before the 2002 Olympics, Hughes got a huge boost when she beat both Kwan and Slutskaya at the international competition Skate Canada. She entered the most important Nationals of her career—the one that would determine the Olympic team—with confidence and high expectations. On January 12, 2002, Hughes placed third behind Kwan and Sasha Cohen at the Nationals, which wasn't what she had hoped for, but was enough to land her on the Olympic team. She had less than one month to train for the event of her life.
Hughes went into the Olympics on a wave of media attention. Kwan was the favorite to win, after having lost the gold to fifteen-year-old Tara Lipinski in 1998. While Newsweek had put Kwan on its cover, and Sport Illustrated had chosen Slutskaya, Hughes was Time magazine's cover girl. She did her best to focus, and left the frenzy behind after the opening ceremonies to practice for six days in the low-pressure environment of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Hughes was in fourth place after the short program, behind Kwan, Slutskaya, and Cohen. But Hughes skated like she had nothing to lose. Her long program was one of the most technically demanding ever attempted in an Olympic women's competition. She successfully landed two clean triple-triple combinations. Cohen fell during her program, which took her out of the running and guaranteed Hughes a medal. Kwan skated a lackluster program, but Slutskaya wowed the judges. The judges spent a grueling three minutes calculating Slutskaya's scores, which were impressive, but were only good enough for a silver medal. Hughes had won the gold. The crowd went wild. "What an upset!" commentator Scott Hamilton exclaimed to the TV audience.
An NBC cameraman informed Hughes she had won, and she and her coach, Robin Wagner, fell to the floor of a locker room, clutching each other, crying and screaming gleefully. When the gold medal was placed around her neck, Hughes became the fourth youngest Olympic women's figure skating champion of all time. Kwan looked on and wept from her third-place position on the Olympic podium.
Hughes immediately accepted invitations to appear on the Today Show with Katie Couric, Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Rosie O'Donnell Show, and was a presenter on the Grammy Awards. A leg injury forced Hughes to withdraw from the 2002-03 Grand Prix of Figure Skating, but she came back in to finish second in the Crest Whitestrips Challenge in December 2002. Her first television special, Sarah Hughes: A Life in Balance, aired on NBC on December 22. She finished second behind Kwan at the 2003 Nationals. Hughes was accepted to Harvard University, and hopes to study medicine and become a doctor. She claims her greatest accomplishment is getting up in the morning.
Address: Sarah Hughes, U.S. Figure Skating Association, 20 First St., Colorado Springs, CO 80906-3624.
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez
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