Skater looks beyond celebrity
Olympic champion Sara Hughes makes a modest grand marshal.
BY SEAN JENSEN
Early Saturday, Sarah Hughes held center stage at the 2004 St. Paul Winter Carnival, presenting awards to local students before skating with them at the ice palace and showcasing some of the moves she utilized to win Olympic gold in 2002.
Minutes later, the New York native blended into the crowd, walking to her hotel without being asked to sign an autograph or to pose for a photo.
The quick conversion was by design ? and well practiced.
Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski transformed their Olympic skating gold into green, becoming media darlings who were featured on countless magazine covers and in television commercials.
A surprise winner at the Olympics, vaulting from fourth to first after a brilliant artistic program, Hughes also had the magnetic smile and the wholesome image to cash in on those spoils.
Her face graced the Wheaties box and Campbell's Soup cans, as well as the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time. She had her own network television special, met Leonardo DiCaprio, handed out a Grammy and threw out the first pitch at a New York Yankees game.
But she passed on countless commercial opportunities.
"It was very overwhelming," said Hughes. "Everybody likes to be on magazine covers once in a while, I'm sure. But that's not what I wanted. I didn't want to do too many interviews, commercials, or be on too many covers. There were other things I'd rather do."
"I just didn't want to be an icon," she added later. "I'm a person."
Hughes immediately tried to take back the icon comment, which is revealing of her personality. She often deflects her accomplishments by highlighting those of her five siblings, or her parents, John and Amy.
A gracious but sometimes uncomfortable celebrity, she did sign some autographs Saturday, addressing each one to the requester's name and signing carefully.
If not for signs bearing her name hanging over the door of the convertible she was riding in as parade grand marshal, Hughes might have gone largely unrecognized by the thousands of people lining St. Paul's downtown streets. Although applause was dulled by mittens and gloves, Hughes' presence didn't exactly incite the masses.
That's fine with her.
"It's nice to have recognition at times, but not all the time," Hughes said. "I've seen celebrity change so many people, and it's not so cool."
Kammi and Kalli Casci, however, were among the exceptions.
The sisters, 10 and 7, respectively, awaited her arrival on the parade route, each holding signs that read, "6.0," the highest mark in figure skating. So impressed was Hughes that she had her driver stop the convertible so she could take a picture with the Cascis, who both skate at the Maplewood Figure Skating Club.
"She's my favorite," Kammi Casci said. "I couldn't believe she came to Minnesota."
Such appearances are rare for Hughes.
After winning the gold medal, Hughes cared more about the SAT (the college entrance exam) than the SAG (Screen Actors Guild). So last fall, along with millions of other 18-year-olds, Hughes joined the class of 2007 at Yale University.
For her, fitting in as a freshman held the potential to be complicated. A select few, if any, of her peers had been on television or magazine covers or pictured in textbooks.
"At first, it was kind of intimidating because you don't know what to say to her, because you saw her on TV," said Christopher Baca, a freshman at Yale from Philadelphia. "But she's easy to talk to, and she's real down to earth. It's not awkward anymore. She's just another one of the students. We don't see her as the gold medalist."
Since starting school last fall, Hughes said she hasn't skated, except for a few twirls with her younger sister, Emily, a promising junior skater. Hughes severed her relationship with her longtime coach, Robin Wagner, who now coaches Sasha Cohen, and she's not sure when she's going to resume skating.
"I've been skating since I was 3 years old, nonstop," Hughes said. "I feel it's time for me to go to school, and do things kids my age do. But I still want to skate and perform. I think this will actually help my training."
Hughes then mentions one of her role models, Tenley Albright, who in 1956 became the first American woman to win the Olympic gold medal in figure skating.
Hughes has done that. But there's more: Albright graduated from medical school and became a respected physician.
"I've always looked up to Tenley, because she was able to succeed in so many aspects of her life," said Hughes, who also is thinking of becoming a doctor.
Many are incredulous at her indifference to post-Olympic stardom, but that's consistent with her style. She still doesn't have an agent, relying instead on her father, John, a commercial attorney in New York. She didn't leave her family in order to train, and she has a broad range of interests, including playing the violin.
Former Olympic champion and ABC commentator Dick Button said Hughes' decisions are refreshing.
"It isn't typical," said Button, a Harvard graduate. "For the better part of the century, most skaters have not taken the route she has. But in what I call the dark old days, it was quite common for people to skate and go to college and graduate school. We had the ability and the time to keep competing, because there were lesser competitions. But it's much more difficult today.
"I admire her greatly for keeping her course of action," Button added of Hughes. "I think it's wonderful that she's gone off to college, but she may come back to skating if she chooses to."
Amy Hughes said many parents have expressed their gratitude to her.
"A lot of parents come up to me and say that their daughter wants to win a medal and go to college," Amy Hughes said. "I think that's good."
Asked if she plans to defend her title at the 2006 Winter Olympics, Hughes quickly responded, "I don't even know what I'm doing this summer."
Besides, she had plenty on her mind Saturday. Her day started with a 6:15 a.m. wake-up call, followed immediately by a hair and makeup session. She conducted two television interviews before 10 a.m., and she raced around St. Paul over the next five hours before catching an evening flight back to New York.
Sometime around 2 p.m., reality set in. She realized she had neglected the psychology and Henry David Thoreau she was supposed to read for her Yale classes.
"There's always a lot going on," she said.