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Published: Friday, 2/22/2002

Hughes' victory proves anything can happen

SALT LAKE CITY - We wanted to be dazzled, mesmerized, swept off our feet.

Considering the stage, considering the hype, considering the performers, considering what was at stake, we expected a gold-medal effort from American Michelle Kwan in women's figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

No, we expected a truly memorable, leave everything on the ice, put-it-on-the-VCR gold-medal performance from Kwan last night.

Instead, that performance came from 16-year-old American Sarah Hughes, who won the gold in stunning fashion.

Hughes was fourth after Tuesday's short program.

But Hughes turned in the best program of her career to beat out Russian skater Irina Slutskaya, who won the silver, and Kwan, who took the bronze.

Everything had pointed to a Kwan victory.

Not only was she skating in her home country, in front of a wildly partisan crowd, she also wanted to set the record straight.

To remove the unflattering rumor that her career won't be complete if she doesn't win a gold medal. Despite leading after Tuesday's round, she again failed to finish first in the Olympics.

“For me, I can't justify training four years just for that six minutes on the ice,” said Kwan, who was favored in the Nagano Olympics four years ago but watched as Tara Lapinski won the gold medal as she settled for silver.

“There's got to be more things I enjoy out of skating, and for me it is definitely the process of getting here.”

Kwan, 21, has grown up since her last Olympics. Taking control of her career, the reigning world champion fired her coach and choreographer and promised to produce a more expressive, less cautious performance than she did four years ago.

Kwan decided to stop holding herself back. There wasn't enough drama in her routine. She needed to become a drama queen.

Everything considered, we fully expected Kwan to entertain us, to make us forget about everything else going in our lives for those precious few minutes she was on the ice.

Unfortunately, Kwan's performance was not one for the ages.

What was expected to be a Kwan blowout became a night filled with compelling story lines.

Of course, there was Kwan going for the gold. And there was Hughes, who was the youngest performer - five years younger than Kwan.

There was also Slutskaya, who at 29 was the oldest competitor and was edged out 5-4 by Kwan in Tuesday's short program.

Slutskaya skated after Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev said his country is considering leaving these Winter Games; she was one of the three Russian skaters to perform last night.

Kwan was excellent on a night when she needed to be brilliant. She didn't let herself go as promised, especially after falling once during her program.

Hughes, who has never performed in a world championship or Grand Prix final, was brilliant. She made a change in the music for the last 90 seconds and performed a second triple lutz, triple toe-loop combination, hitting both splendidly.

She also added a more exciting ending.

So why did we short-change Kwan's competition? Why did we act like Kwan would win, hands-down?

The best theory is that the pack mentality of the media's image-makers dominates at the Olympics. It's OK to be wrong, as long as everyone else is wrong. That's the only explanation I can come up with. We assumed Slutskaya and Hughes didn't have a chance.

Before taking the ice, Hughes let reporters in on a little secret.

“This is the Olympics and we've all been training really hard,” Hughes said. “I think there will be a lot of great performances. Anything can happen.”

Anything did.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at jharris@theblade.com.



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