At the 1994 Olympics, only diehard skating fans had heard of Tara Lipinski. But in 1998, she was the Olympic champion. Before 1997, Sarah Hughes was almost unknown outside of the Eastern United States, where her best finish was a 6th in novice ladies. For the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, she’s one of the favorites after winning her first World Championship medal, a bronze, at the 2001 Worlds in Vancouver, and beating Olympic co-favorites Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya at Skate Canada in November.
Hughes had a breakthrough year in 1998 when she won the U. S. junior ladies title in her first Nationals and took two more silvers at her first two internationals, the Mexico Cup and the Hungarian Trophy. For the past three years, she has finished in the top five at U. S. Nationals, moving up from fourth in 1999 to third in 2000 and second in 2001. She has medalled at every Grand Prix event except the NHK Trophy, where she has yet to compete, and finished third overall behind Slutskaya and Kwan at the 2000-2001 Grand Prix Final. Her World Championship record is equally impressive, with a seventh in 1999, fifth in 2000, and third in 2001. If she keeps up the same rate of progression in the U. S. championships and Worlds, she should win both in 2002.
Hughes has been inspired by three of the USA’s greatest Olympic skaters — Peggy Fleming, Scott Hamilton, and Kristi Yamaguchi. “Peggy is the perfect combination of athleticism and grace, something I strive for in my own skating,” said Hughes. “I like Scott because he’s a great entertainer who always gives 100 percent of himself and Kristi because she has maintained a high level of technical difficulty throughout her professional career.”
Natalia Dubova was one of the first international coaches to notice Sarah’s potential while she was skating in Lake Placid, picking Hughes at eight for a tour of France and Switzerland with skaters like Maya Usova and Alexander Zhulin. But Hughes didn’t try dance or pairs. “She’s very much her own person. She likes to be in total control of her skating,” said Robin Wagner, who became her head coach in January 1998. Hughes’ progress has been startling. She landed her first triple salchow at 12 and had all the triples except the Axel by the age of 13. Sarah named the triple loop as her favorite jump.
Wagner has choreographed Hughes’ programs since 1994. For the 1999-2000 season, she used “Turandot” for the free skate. “I just stumbled on the music for the short,” Wagner stated. “It has an underlying calm that is perfect for a short program. I actually picked the long program music and cut it the previous year,” she continued, “but I decided to put it aside and wait until Sarah was a little older. When I played it at the rink that summer, she said ‘I love this music’.” Hughes’ trip to the Vienna Cup, where she captured her first international gold medal that fall, was highlighted by a trip to see the opera “Turandot.” “Sarah was so excited to see the person on stage portraying what she is skating on ice,” Wagner relayed. “It really helped her to interpret and understand the music so she could play the part of the princess.” For the current season, Hughes is using “Ave Maria” for the short program. Her long program includes Ravel’s “Daphne and Chloe” and Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” and Piano Concerto No.2.
Hughes trains for 2-3 hours a day after she finishes classes at Great Neck High School, where she’s an honor student. She takes advanced placement math and science classes after scoring 100 percent on New York’s math proficiency test. “I like math the best,” said Sarah. “I hope to go to college and study law or medicine. I always wanted to be a doctor and work with kids, but my dad’s a lawyer and what he’s doing look likes fun.”
Other than skating, Sarah plays tennis, swims and rollerblades. She likes to go to movies and to go shopping. “After I finish my homework,” she stressed. In addition to searching the Internet for her schoolwork, she uses her computer to chat with friends but doesn’t have an official home page, although several unofficial ones have sprung up. Sarah learned to play the violin but doesn’t play anymore. She listens to all kinds of music except rap and heavy metal and counts Celine Dion and Brittney Spears among her favorites, but prefers to skate to classical pieces. Sarah likes to read, especially classics, and listed “Anne of Green Gables” as a favorite as well as books on mythology. On television, her favorite program is the Today Show. She also collects Beanie babies and laments the fact that they are being discontinued. Other than the Beanie babies, she collects stuffed bears and dogs, especially Gund bears, and has several American girl dolls.
For vacation, Sarah’s family used to go to Disney World but she has been so busy that she didn’t even have a chance to go when she skated in Orlando. She’s also been to Milan and Venice and would like to go to Italy again, but really wants to see London.
Even after last season, Hughes isn’t looking too far ahead. “My career is just starting,” she said. “I want to skate my best and I hope to do better than last year. I’d like to become the best in the World.” Believing that “when you work hard, you have fun,” Hughes has the talent and the drive to excel.