The first of the contenders to skate in the short program was U.S. and world bronze medalist Sarah Hughes. Despite a clean program, Hughes received required elements marks as low as 5.1 after being dinged for improper technique on the lutz and flip jumps. It became immediately apparent that Hughes’s medal chances would rest on the performances of others.
Directly following Hughes, U.S. silver medalist Sasha Cohen won over the crowd and the judges with her short program to “My Sweet and Tender Beast.” Though she also switched edge on her lutz combination, Cohen received marks up to 5.8 for both required elements and presentation- extremely high marks for a skater so early in the competition, let alone a skater who had never competed in a World Championships. It was clear that the marks would leave Cohen in the top three, conceivably in contention for a gold medal.
Cohen’s marks stood up over former World Champion Maria Butyrskaya, whose shaky jump landings did not hold her in good standing with many of the judges. Butyrskaya remained in medal contention, but her fifth-place finish in the short program made bronze her only realistic hope.
Three-time world silver medalist Irina Slutskaya directly followed Butyrskaya, ticking her elements off one by one. Aside from a possible deduction for steps not immediately preceding her triple flip, Slutskaya skated a flawless but somewhat conservative program. Though she had the jump difficulty, including a triple lutz-double loop combination that only Hughes could match, the overall performance was subdued and left the door open for Michelle Kwan.
Four times the World Champion, Kwan proved yet again that she knows how to walk through open doors. Despite a wild takeoff on her triple flip, Kwan saved the jump with cat-like ability and sailed through the rest of her free skate to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Trio No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3., earning a string of 5.9s for presentation. The judges were split five to four, but Kwan slid ahead of Slutskaya and led the pack entering the free skate.
In the free, the strongest performance in penultimate group of ladies came from Japan’s Fumie Suguri, whose five triples were good enough for fifth place overall. With her only error being a planned triple loop reduced to a double, Suguri’s “Moonlight Sonata” moved her up two places despite an unfortunate draw that had her skating almost a full hour before the other main contenders.
Butyrskaya led off the final group, and her free skate was as uneven as her short program. Though she fought through the program, landing six of her seven triples including her triple toe-half loop-triple salchow, most of her landings were bent forward and on shaky edges. The twenty-nine year old Russian finished sixth, the same place that elder statesman Todd Eldredge finished in the men’s event.
Fourth after the short program, Sarah Hughes took the ice with a new dress, a half new program, and a new triple-triple combination. After sailing through a double Axel, Hughes knocked off a triple salchow-triple loop combination, the same combination that helped her to a bronze medal at last year’s World Championships and a gold medal at Skate Canada. Then came the triple lutz combination, the element that was widely criticized in the short program. The edge change was as egregious as ever, but the element was complete. Skating down the ice, she knocked off an easy triple flip. After a brief resting section, Hughes did what no woman- including herself- had successfully done before: she landed a triple toe loop-triple loop combination and became the first woman ever to complete two triple-triple combinations at the Olympics, at the 2:30 minute of her program no less. Changed only in the last month since U.S. Nationals, the final 1:30 of Hughes’s program displayed superior footwork and spinning to that of the original version. With one final triple toe loop followed by a split falling leaf and a stag jump, Hughes entered her combination spin knowing that she had turned in a historic performance, and she finished to a standing ovation. The judges who were so stingy in the short program shelled out marks of 5.7-5.8 for technical merit and 5.6-5.8 for presentation. It was then a waiting game for the sixteen-year old Long Island native.
Hungary’s Julia Sebestyen followed Hughes and provided a stark contrast to the previous two women with her large, springy jumps. Impressive as they were, Sebestyen only completed three clean triples and dropped from sixth to eighth overall.
The first of the top three to skate was Sasha Cohen. As the opening notes of “Carmen” played, she performed two perfect arabesques followed by a high double Axel. Building speed for her planned triple lutz-triple toe, Cohen landed the lutz forward but attempted to do the triple on the end anyway. The ensuing fall ensured that she would finish behind Hughes, and likely off the podium. The seventeen-year old from Laguna Niguel, Calif. performed the rest of her program without error, landing six triple jumps in all, but her fate had been sealed by the early fall. Fourth place.
1998 Olympic silver medalist and four-time World Champion Michelle Kwan followed Cohen. The 21-year old native of Torrance, Calif. has every trophy in her collection except Olympic gold. Things began to look ominous when Kwan’s second jumping pass was a triple toe-double toe combination instead of her planned triple-triple, which she has not performed all season. Though she recovered well with a triple lutz-double loop and double Axel, Kwan sat down on a triple flip halfway through her program. Though she, too, fought through the rest of her program and threw in an improvised final triple toe, her mistakes proved costly given that her base jump difficulty was far below Hughes’s. Kwan finished beyond Hughes on eight of the nine judges’ scorecards, but retained her lead over Hughes based on the factored placements from the short program.
Kwan’s archrival who has finished second behind her three times at the World Championships, Irina Slutskaya, took to the ice knowing the gold medal was within her reach. Perhaps she was overly conservative after hearing Kwan’s marks, but Slutskaya reduced the back halves of her triple lutz-triple loop and triple salchow-triple loop combinations to doubles. Though she completed six triples in all and skated a “clean performance,” she, like Kwan, lacked the difficulty or excitement of Hughes. With her purer technique, Slutskaya was able to win or tie Hughes on the technical merit on all but one of the nine judges’ cards, but five judges gave Hughes a slight edge on presentation. The twenty-three-year old Muscovite would have to settle for silver after losing 5-4 judging splits in both the short and free programs. One more judge in either would have gotten her gold medal.
Due to Slutskaya’s placement between Hughes and Kwan, the overall placements changed, vaulting Hughes ahead of Kwan into the gold medal position with Slutskaya second and Kwan third. Watching backstage, Hughes and coach Robin Wagner collapsed to the floor screaming with joy. The “firsts” for the sixteen-year old are seemingly endless. First skater in recent memory to win the gold medal from the fourth-place position after the short program. First female skater to perform two triple-triple combinations in an Olympic free skate. First U.S. skater to win Olympic gold without ever winning a national title.
Four years ago in Philadelphia, Hughes was a twelve year-old junior champion. Now she is an Olympic Champion. Kwan, who was so brilliant at those Nationals, earning a record 15 perfect scores, will now ponder her future as she decides whether to make a third try at the Olympics, coachless and without direction. Though disappointed by her narrow defeat, Slutskaya nevertheless became the highest-finishing Russian woman in the Olympic history, earning Russia’s only second-ever medal.
Thus ended a bittersweet night in Salt Lake City, where the Star Spangled banner played for the upstart for the second consecutive Olympics.