Hughes' stunning skating earns her a golden upset

Kwan falls to third after flawed routine

Winter Olympics

Salt Lake City 2002

February 22, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY -- With an aw-shucks grin for the ages, 16-year-old American Sarah Hughes pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history last night, soaring from fourth place to win the gold medal in women's figure skating. The victory made Hughes the seventh American woman to win gold in women's singles competition.

"I didn't think it was possible," Hughes said. "It's so wonderful. It's something I've always dreamed of."

With a performance that was both brilliant technically and breathtaking artistically, Hughes clearly was the best skater on a night when favorites Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya were both average. But after a so-so routine the short program Tuesday, Hughes knew she would need the performance of her life and delivered, hitting all six of her triple jumps, delicately moving across the ice with both grace and skill, bringing the Salt Lake Ice Center to its feet before she had even finished.

"Tonight, I didn't really go out and skate for a gold medal," Hughes said. "I went out to have a great time. I said, `This is the Olympics. I want the best.' And it's amazing. Really, truly amazing."

In one of the closest decisions ever, Hughes finished just ahead of Russian Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan, who were both shaky with the gold medal in their grasp. Hughes became the first woman to do two triple-triple jump combinations in the Olympics, cleanly landing a triple-Salchow, triple-toe loop combo, then besting it with a triple toe, triple loop combination.

It was a stunning performance, earning her just enough points to win a 5-4 decision with the judging panel ahead of Slutskaya, who earned silver. Since figure skating changed the way it weighted its scoring system in 1990, giving more emphasis to the free skate, no skater had ever come back from fourth to win the gold medal.

Nearly as stunning was the performance by Kwan, who for the second straight Olympics let a gold medal slip from her grasp. Kwan was sloppy and faltered twice, falling on the ice at one point and struggling with a triple toe loop early in her program. She slipped into third place, behind Slutskaya, who walked away with silver after a shaky performance herself.

"I made a few mistakes," Kwan said. "I guess it wasn't my night. ... I think that was my worst skate for a while. I just wanted to keep my head high."

When Slutskaya's scores came up, Hughes broke into a look of shock, pumping her fist and hugging her coach, Robin Wagner.

"I was pretty nervous because I didn't know what would happen," Hughes said. "I didn't have any idea what the judges would were thinking. ... Some people never have the performance of their life. I'm just happy to be able to skate the best I can possibly skate tonight."

Seventeen-year-old American Sasha Cohen, who entered the night in third place with a good shot at a gold medal, fell during her first jump combination and had to settle for a fourth-place finish.

It's been a wild ride for the precocious Hughes, who grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., and had to deal with her mother receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer four years ago.

Nerves seemed to get her on Tuesday night in the short program, but once she hit the ice last night and landed her first combination, she was flying to heights few predicted when she finished third at nationals last month behind Kwan and Cohen.

However her maturity was evident as she held the crowd in the palm of her hand, slicing across the ice with perfect execution.

"I think a lot of people counted me out," Hughes said. "I think people thought I couldn't do it. A lot of people thought this was a competition between just two other people. Just to be sitting with a medal around my neck is something I never thought would happen."

At least not yet. Hughes figured her real shot at Olympic glory would be in 2006, when the Winter Games go to Turin, Italy. She planned on working on her jumps and becoming a much stronger technical skater, hoping to bridge the athletic gap between herself and skaters like Cohen and Slutskaya.

No need now. In fact, most of the questions in the news conference were whether Hughes would walk away from the sport now that she had reached its pinnacle.

"I love to skate, and I'm still young," Hughes said. "I have a lot of things left I want to accomplish both on and off the ice. I'm only 16 years old, so I've got some time to decide."

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