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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Gold medalist Hughes set to move on to other things

BY LORI SHONTZ
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

SALT LAKE CITY - So what's next for Sarah Hughes, the upset Olympic gold medalist, who won figure skating's biggest prize without having won a world title or even a national title first?

“I don't really know right now,” she said. “I just want to keep up with my schoolwork and stay in touch with my teachers. My next goal is to get in the 1500s on my SATs.”

Her response was vintage Sarah Hughes, the girl who was relieved simply to make the Olympic team after finishing third at nationals, who gets no special treatment from her five brothers and sisters and who last month greeted news that someone had written an “unauthorized biography” of her with the comment, “I thought nobody would ever write a book about me. I mean, I'm only 16 and haven't lived that long.”

While she's hardly the average girl next door, Hughes is about as close to that ideal as anyone will find in an Olympic figure skating gold medalist.

She is known - practically alone, among elite skaters - for not moving away from her home to train. She has continued to live in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, and attend the local high school - although recently, with her increased international success, she hasn't spent as much time there.

She is an honors student who played the violin in the school orchestra until elite-level competition took her out of school too often, wants to attend Harvard and is considering a career as a doctor.

And she is one of six children of John and Amy Hughes, a lawyer and an accountant turned full-time mom who have refused to alter their family life simply because one of their daughters is an elite skater.

“I've always felt that what has been one of her strongest assets is her family background,” figure skating analyst Dick Button told USA Today. “She does seem to have both feet on the ground, or both skates on the ice, and it works well in her behalf.”

Hughes finally got to hang out with her family Thursday night after the long program; with all the training, she hadn't seen them in a while. No one treated her any differently.

“I think sometimes they were more interested in the medal than me,” she said, grinning.

Her family has tried to keep her upbringing as normal as possible for an elite, teen-age athlete, but many things will change now. It's one thing to not have an agent and not do commercials when you're a medalist at U.S. nationals, but it's a completely different situation when you're the Olympic champion.

“I think the real test of how normal she will be in the future is right now,” said Hughes' coach, Robin Wagner. “I think this is going to be a real job in itself. I know her family - and I suppose I'm included - are going to work real hard to keep her as nice as she is.”

Hughes' success isn't exactly a surprise. Consistency has been her hallmark since she won her first major championship, the U.S. junior title in 1998.

She burst onto the national scene despite an upheaval at home. In August, 1997, her mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Amy Hughes, who underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and stem-cell transplants, has been cancer-free for three years.

John Hughes had said it was during that year that his daughter truly made a commitment to skating. She needed to do more things for herself while her mother struggled with the illness and the treatment, and she did them willingly while spending so much time with her mother that Amy Hughes called her “Dr. Sarah.”

From that first title, Hughes progressed steadily. In 1999, she finished second at the junior world championships, fourth at nationals in her first time at the senior level and seventh as a senior lady at the 1999 worlds.

The next year she moved up to third at nationals and fifth at worlds, and in 2001 she finished second at nationals behind Michelle Kwan and third at worlds. This season, she became the first American woman to beat Kwan since Tara Lipinski at the 1998 Olympics.

EXHIBITIONS: Finishing hand-in-hand in a spiral, the pairs involved in one of the Olympics' biggest scandals closed a figure skating exhibition last night in a show of harmony.

Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze and Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were received warmly by the capacity crowd at the Salt Lake Ice Center during their individual programs and at the dramatic finish.

Gold medalist Sarah Hughes delighted the audience with a lively exhibition to a medley from the musical Fosse in a sparkling black unitard.

The 16-year-old New Yorker closed the regular portion of the show with a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, skating to “You'll Never Walk Alone.”

The most emotional piece of skating was performed by the woman Hughes beat less than 24 hours earlier.

Michelle Kwan skated to Sting's “Fields of Gold.” She had lost the gold medal she was favored to win and wound up with the bronze.

However, the crowd showed that it was still behind her and Kwan had tears streaming down her cheeks at the end.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lori Shontz is a reporter for the Post-Gazette. The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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