New York teen primed for world stage

Hughes `triples' chances for medal in Vancouver

Figure Skating

March 19, 2001|By THE RECORD (HACKENSACK, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. - It's about a 90-minute drive between Great Neck (N.Y.) North High School and The Ice House, time for Sarah Hughes to catch up on her math homework, listen to some 'N Sync, and talk with her coach, Robin Wagner, about her latest lipstick color.

But when Wagner's Ford Explorer pulls into the parking lot, all the chitchat about boys and Britney Spears' new video ceases and out steps a girl showing serious determination and dedication.

Hughes spends two hours a day, six days a week at The Ice House, pressing forward in her dream of becoming the best woman figure skater in the world.

Right now, she's never been closer to seizing that dream.

Hughes, 15, goes into this week's world championships in Vancouver, British Columbia, with an excellent chance of commandeering a spot on the medal stand.

"Coming in the top three is a very big goal right now," Hughes said. "It will take a lot of work and I'll need to skate really well and really hard and really strong."

Just two years ago, that would have been a pipe dream. Back then, Hughes was an awkward newcomer to the senior ranks, though she qualified for the world championships on a technicality. She surprised everyone with a seventh-place finish. Last year, she inched up to fifth.

This year, she comes armed with perhaps the most technically demanding program of any woman. Hughes lands triple-triple combinations that world champion Michelle Kwan and former world champ Maria Butryskaya only wish they could do. In fact, only Hughes, Kwan, Butryskaya and Irina Slutskaya figure to have a prayer of winning a medal.

"A lot of skaters are planning triple-triple combinations," Wagner said, "but it's a matter of ... performing them.

"It's one thing to do one in practice, but another to do one in the middle of a four-minute program under pressure. She has been performing the triple-triple a lot more consistently this season, although that's not the whole program. We try not to put total focus on that."

There's always talk of the next wave of American skaters, that Naomi Nari Nam, Sasha Cohen, Jenny Kirk and others are going to someday rise up and take the torch from Kwan, who's pushing 21. But only Hughes appears to be the real deal, the only one to raise her talent to Kwan's level.

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