• U.S.

Three U.S. Stars. One Gold Medal. Get Ready For Spin City

8 minute read
Alice Park

The first time figure skater Sarah Hughes came face-to-face with Michelle Kwan, they weren’t on the ice, but they might have been, for all the care that went into choreographing the meeting, at least on Hughes’ part. Hughes had learned that Kwan, her idol, was competing near Hughes’ home on New York’s Long Island and would be dining at a local restaurant. Hughes couldn’t let the opportunity pass and persuaded her older brothers and sister to eat with her at the same establishment. “I just wanted to go and eat at the same restaurant as Michelle, at the same time she did,” she says.

A mere four-year Olympic cycle later, Hughes is still maneuvering for meetings with Kwan, but now it’s on the medals podium. As part of the deeply talented U.S. women’s figure-skating team heading to Salt Lake City, Hughes will be facing off with Kwan and Sasha Cohen for Olympic gold in what promises to be the most intense battle of the blades in a decade. The three make up the strongest U.S. contingent since Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding last stirred hope for a medals sweep in 1992. Yamaguchi and Kerrigan delivered, winning gold and bronze, respectively, while Harding finished fourth. “With all the girls skating so well and peaking at the right time, it certainly makes sense to talk about sweeping again this year,” says Yamaguchi.

This being figure skating, don’t count on a team effort to knock off the competition, which this year comes mainly from Russia. You can resurface a rink with the frostiness that elite skaters reserve for one another. Hughes, 16, makes it clear that despite Kwan’s once revered status, the six-time national champ is “just another competitor” now. The equally aggressive Cohen, 17, announced her intention to risk everything by trying to become the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.

Kwan added another chapter to her epic eight-year quest for Olympic gold when she shed her longtime coach Frank Carroll last winter. She wobbled badly at first, but after winning the national championships in Los Angeles four weeks ago, she is still the one to beat. Cohen edged Hughes for second in that event, surprising the crowd with a polished, sophisticated performance, confirming that this will be a three-way race.

If Kwan is the ice legend of her time and Cohen is the mesmerizing but mercurial rising star, then Hughes is the well-disciplined champion in training. Her ascent to Olympic contender in the past three years couldn’t have been more methodical if it had been planned; each year she has bettered her rankings at both the national and the world championships. She covers the rink with more speed than Kwan and spins and jumps with more explosive energy. While Cohen does have the edge over Hughes in emotive prowess, Hughes is the more consistent skater.

And although she has yet to obtain a driver’s license, the New Yorker has proved herself a deft navigator of the skating circuit. She is a crafty competitor with enough international experience to know–and deliver–what the judges like to see. She bested both Kwan and Russian star Irina Slutskaya at an international competition in November, becoming the first U.S. skater to beat Kwan since Tara Lipinski did it at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

Even so, getting to the podium won’t be a slap shot for Hughes. Cohen, a gifted performer, is as much a master of the mental game as she is of the triple Lutz. At last month’s nationals she clipped Kwan twice during the warm-up before their final programs, rattling Kwan enough that she cut short the prep for her jumps. Cohen denied the hockey tactics were intentional, but gamesmanship may be part of her package. “I’m always trying to be on top of the podium,” she says. Hampered by a back injury last year, Cohen was erratic in the season’s first events but has an ability to transfix an audience with innovative moves that highlight her flexibility. Even without the quad, she may just possess that indescribable elan that sets Olympic champions apart. Oksana Baiul, the 1994 gold medalist, had it, defeating Kerrigan with her exuberant performance; Lipinski had it in Nagano.

It’s that elusive esprit that Kwan is hoping to capture, something she hasn’t been able to do since her 1998 performance at the nationals, a month before Nagano. Without a coach but with a boyfriend and college classes as part of her life, Kwan says, “I have a different motivation now. I feel I have to take control of my skating at this moment.” If she can harness it successfully, Kwan could add Olympic gold to the four world and six national titles she holds.

Hughes’ story is remarkable for the way in which she has refused to surrender a normal upbringing for skating. At a time when families think nothing of packing up their skating prodigy and relocating near an elite coach (as did the Yamaguchis and Lipinskis), Hughes and her parents have always made school, not skating, the priority. Even as her abilities on the ice gained national prominence, Hughes continued to be part of the swirl of everyday life with her five brothers and sisters and remained rooted to her home and family in the New York City suburb of Great Neck. She will graduate with her high school class next year, and she takes her SAT review book to every meet. “My parents saw that I was happy living at home and that I could still skate before and after school and spend time with my family,” she says.

That time became critically important in 1997, when Hughes turned 12. That was the year her mother Amy, formerly an accountant, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was also, says her father John, an attorney, the year that his daughter “took ownership of her own skating.” Hughes became extremely protective of her mother and began to steer her own skating progress, working with coach Robin Wagner to ensure that she did not stagnate at the junior level. During Hughes’ rise from fourth to third to second at her first three senior national championships, her mother dubbed her Dr. Sarah; watching her daughter skate eased Amy’s mind and body from the rigors of cancer therapies.

Hughes began improving dramatically in 1998, when Wagner, initially her choreographer, became her full-time coach, not to mention surrogate mother, mentor and confidant. Says Hughes: “She was always asking me whether I liked something. When you’re 10, you always want to be the boss, and when someone asks you for your input, you get really excited.” A onetime singles skater, Wagner connects with Hughes as both a former competitor and a coach, and their bond is undeniably strengthened by the amount of time the two spend together off the ice. Wagner picks up Hughes six days a week at a shopping-mall parking lot, as she has done for four years, and the two drive an hour to the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., where they train. The subject of skating is off limits during the round-trip commute. “Car time is for talking about anything but skating,” says Wagner, who prefers current events.

Once at the Ice House, the Long Islander shares the rink with Olympics-bound pairs champions from the U.S. and Russia, and it’s all business. Training with pairs, who generate more speed than singles skaters, pushes Hughes to mimic that power. After soliciting feedback from judges last season, Wagner and Hughes devoted the summer to addressing two criticisms of Hughes’ skating–her still nascent expressiveness and her faulty technique on the triple Lutz jump, one of the most challenging leaps a female skater makes (only the triple Axel is more difficult). Hughes was slipping badly onto the wrong blade edge before taking off. Most women skaters make the error, as they lack the upper-body strength to hold the edge and counter the rotation of the hips. But the fault was more glaring in Hughes because she jumps in the direction opposite that of most skaters and in a corner of the rink where judges have a better view of any technical mishaps. Yamaguchi acknowledges that all this may contribute to Hughes’ being unfairly singled out by the notoriously subjective skating judges: “Sometimes judges don’t live by the rules, and they opt to see it or not to see it. I think that, yes, some skaters may be more penalized than others.” For three months, Hughes tried to relearn the jump, and while she has made some adjustments, it is nearly impossible for a top skater to rewind a jump in such a short period of time after it becomes part of the body’s repertoire. “It’s much better, and I’d like people to compare [my Lutz] with others’ now,” says Hughes.

But there is still time–and always room–for improvement. After attending opening ceremonies, Hughes plans to continue perfecting her programs with Wagner in Colorado Springs, Colo., away from the distractions of the spectacle that is the Olympics. To capitalize on Hughes’ jumping ability, the two have decided to throw in an additional triple-triple combination in her final program.

That’s an ambitious move, but after patiently working her way up the ranks, Hughes knows she can match Kwan, and anyone else, on the ice. For Hughes, who once admired Kwan from across a restaurant, it’s time to win some admirers of her own.

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