At the precocious age of 16, Sarah Hughes emerged as the shining star of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games when she stunned the world -- and the three skaters rated ahead of her -- by winning the gold medal in figure skating. Hughes did so by unleashing a dazzling final program that featured seven triple jumps, all performed flawlessly. Twice Sarah landed a triple-triple combination, an unprecedented feat for a female skater at the time. She was by far the best performer in the long program, so much better than her rivals that she rocketed from fourth place (after the short program) all the way to the gold –- a leap, like her pair of triple-triples, that had never been previously accomplished at this level. Hughes was followed in the standings by Russian Irina Slutskaya, Michelle Kwan, and 17-year-old Sasha Cohen. "I didn't think it was possible after the short program, being fourth," Hughes said. "It's wonderful. It's something I've always dreamed of. There was no pressure on me to win. I skated for pure enjoyment. That's how I wanted my Olympic moment to be."
“Not since 1992, when the format changed, had anyone reached up to grab gold from her position. But defying gravity was Hughes's strength tonight,” wrote Selena Roberts in The New York Times (February 22, 2002). “With a broad smile, with nothing to lose skating from fourth place, Hughes took the ice having the courage to try two triple-triple jump combinations and the wings to pull them off. She was more than athletic. She was luminous in a lavender dress, morphing from an adult to a child only when her program was over. Knowing she had just completed the performance of a lifetime, Hughes shrugged in front of a standing ovation that began with her final spin, as if to say, ‘Can you believe this?’ "
Sarah instantly became America’s sweetheart because of the charm, sweetness, unaffected naturalness and grace that she displayed along with her enormous talent. She further endeared herself to Americans when, after winning her gold medal, she dedicated her exhibition skate to the victims of the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. Identifying herself as “a proud New Yorker,” she added, “I am 16 years old, and I still want to believe that our planet is big enough for everyone. I skate in honor of those thousands of innocent lives lost on September 11. May we always stay united and never walk alone.” (John Lehmann in The New York Post, February 23, 2002)
Contemplating her place in the new order of figure skating, Hughes said, "I think this is really just the beginning of my career." An honors student who hopes to become a doctor, Sarah observed that "I just want to keep up with my schoolwork and stay in touch with my teachers and get in the high 1,500's on my SAT's." She did well enough on her SAT's to gain acceptance at Yale, where she is currently a student, having passed up lucrative professional touring opportunities in order to get an Ivy League education.
In an interview with Lifestyles magazine (pre-spring, 2005) Sarah noted that she and her brother Matthew had private tutoring in Hebrew at home, but eventually drifted away from their studies when sports began to occupy more and more of their time. It is still a bond they have. “You can have a bar or bat mitzvah at any age,” Hughes says. “Matt and I are talking about doing it one of these years. We want to have it together.”
She added that Rosh Hashanah dinner, Passover seders and Hanukkah candles are all a part of family tradition.
Hughes, whose mother is Jewish, began skating at the age of three; her older siblings skated, and her father John was the captain of the Cornell hockey team that won the national college championship in 1970. The fourth of six children, Sarah was one of the most promising young skaters on the East Coast by the mid-1990s, but was relatively unknown nationally. She made her presence felt on the national scene when she won the U.S. Junior Championships in 1998, then finished fourth in the U.S. Nationals the following year. Sarah also competed in her first World Championships in 1999, finishing an impressive seventh overall.
Since 1998, Hughes has been one of the most consistent skaters in the world. In 2000, a breakout year for Sarah, she won the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships, and placed fifth at the World Championships. Since that competition, she has won a medal at every competition she entered. After winning silver medals at Skate America, The Nations Cup, and the Cup of Russia in 2000, Hughes won the silver medal at the 2001 U.S. Championships and then took the bronze at the World Championships. Sarah then won her first career title at Skate Canada, defeating Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya for the first time.
To Sarah, family and education are just as important as skating. “Hughes craves perfection and routine — her closet is arranged according to season and color and sleeve length. She hated it when her older brothers would enter her room and mess up the order,” wrote Liz Robbins in The New York Times (February 23, 2002). " ‘I was the one who always demanded attention,’ Hughes said in an interview last year. ‘I was always very competitive, regardless of what it was. When we were younger, we had a little rink in the back. I tried to skate faster than them. I always wanted to be the first to do everything. I was the first to walk and run, and the first to tie my skates myself. It wasn't so important for me to tie my skates first. It was because I was the only one who could do it right, how I liked it.’…Her ebullient spirit comes from her mother, Amy, who survived breast cancer three years ago. Hughes, in turn, became an inspiration for her mother when she won the junior national championships in Philadelphia while her mother was undergoing treatment.”
Sarah skated in exhibitions with her idol, the 1968 gold medalist Peggy Fleming. Fleming was at Salt Lake to see her protégée win her own gold medal. “I've never seen her skate that well before," marveled Fleming. Hughes has a T-shirt with a picture of Fleming and wears it to bed on the night before competitions. "It's my lucky shirt," she said. Fleming said of Sarah’s great triumph that "I don't think it will change her. She has values and is very grounded. This is probably just a steppingstone for Sarah. She has aspirations of being a lawyer and a doctor and she's just starting." (The New York Times, February 23, 2002).
Following her Olympic triumph, Hughes made countless TV and promotional appearances. A leg injury forced her to withdraw from the ISU Grand Prix in 2002-03, but she then finished second at the Crest Whitestrips International Figure Skating Challenge. At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2003, Hughes finished second behind Michelle Kwan and said, "It was a respectable skate...I'm happy to move up a spot [from the 2002 U.S. Championships.] The nationals are always difficult because there's a lot of pressure to make the World Team. There was also some added pressure this year coming in with a lot more notoriety than in the past. I was happy with what I did. I'm not 100 percent pleased because I can do a lot better. It's hard for me to look at the fact that I can't always be perfect, especially coming off of Salt Lake. I always want to do better." Hughes will competed at the World Championships in March, 2003.
Birth and Death Dates:
b. May 2, 1985
Great Neck, New York