SALT LAKE CITY - Sixteen-year-old American Sarah Hughes pulled off what will likely go down as one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history last night, charging from fourth place to claim the gold medal in women's figure skating.
In doing so, she overtook the favorite, Michelle Kwan of the United States, Irina Slutskaya of Russia and Sasha Cohen of the United States, who held the top three positions after the short program.
Hughes' performance was both brilliant and breathtaking, clearly the class of the night among a group of experienced skaters. In winning, Hughes became the seventh American woman to win gold in women's singles figure skating, and is the second-youngest person ever to earn the honor.
American Tara Lipinski was 15 when she won in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.
"I didn't think it was possible." Hughes said. "It's wonderful. It's something I've always dreamed of."
Hughes wasn't the only one who had trouble grasp ing the moment. After an average performance in the short program Tuesday, the consensus was that gold medal honors would come down to a race between Kwan and Cohen and Russian Slutskaya. But it was Hughes who performed brilliantly in the most pressure-packed moment, nailing every jump and delicately moving her way across the ice with both grace and skill.
"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."
The New York native knew she needed something outstanding if she wanted a shot at catching Kwan and Slutskaya, and some how came up with it, becoming the first women to ever do two triple- triple jump combinations in the Olympics. Hughes cleanly landed a triple-Salchow, triple-toe loop combo, then bested it with a triple toe, triple loop combination. It was a stunning performance, shaking the stadium before she was even finished.
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."
Slutskaya skated last, and could have easily won the gold with a clean program. But her performance was clearly one of her worst in a long time, as she fumbled her jumps and almost had to put her hand on the ice during one sequence to keep her balance.
"I'm just so thrilled"
When Slutskaya's scores came up, Hughes broke into a smile, pumping her fist and hugging anyone in sight.
"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. I'm just so thrilled."
Cohen, who came in with a shot at the gold as well, slipped on the ice during one of her jumps and finished fourth.