Sunday, January 19, 2003

Olympic gold medalist Hughes wins silver

By Nancy Armour
The Associated Press

DALLAS - Sarah Hughes will happily add American silver to her Olympic gold. Hughes finished second to Michelle Kwan in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday night. But considering it was her first major competition since winning the Olympic gold medal and she'd had only a month to really train for it, second looks pretty good.

"It definitely feels great to be back in the competitive atmosphere, back in the competitive spirit," she said. "I'm happy this week is done, but I'm also happy with what I put out there."

Hughes pulled off one of the biggest stunners in Olympic history last February when she vaulted from fourth to first with a spectacular free skate. It was a brilliant performance, a perfect combination of elegance and technical skill.

And she's spent the last year enjoying the rewards that come with such an achievement. The 17-year-old champion has traveled the world, met Leonardo DiCaprio, handed out a Grammy and got accepted to Harvard.

But the whirlwind came with a price. She didn't have her usual conditioning when she began training for the season, and she injured her right leg.

She missed the entire Grand Prix series while recuperating, and came to nationals far behind the rest of the competition.

"Nationals are always difficult, and this time there was added pressure on me," she said. "I came in with a little more notoriety."

Came in a little late, too. Most skaters usually arrive at the arena at least an hour before their warmup begins, giving them time to stretch out, make last-minute adjustments to their hair and makeup and get in the right frame of mind.

But 10 minutes before her warmup Saturday night, there were Hughes and coach Robin Wagner, rushing out of the elevator.

"I will take the responsibility," Wagner said. "I just bobbled on the schedule and we just left a little too late."

"A little?" Hughes chimed in, laughing.

Hughes wasn't even in costume, and they were frantically pulling her dress out of her bag, along with her tights. But they played it cool once they reached the dressing room, acting as if everything was fine.

"All the girls were looking at me," Hughes said, laughing again.

But she pulled off one of the quickest changes ever, making it out to the ice in plenty of time for her warmup. Then she sat back and waited for the other five women in her group to skate.

Skating to the ballet "La Bayadere," Hughes didn't have the flair everyone remembers from the Olympics. She was uncharacteristically conservative, doing only one jump combination. And it was a triple-double, not the more difficult triple-triple she normally does.

But she had a clean performance that flowed nicely, which is more than Sasha Cohen could say.

Cohen was the strongest skater on the Grand Prix circuit, and she came into nationals on a hot streak. But she fell apart in the free skate, doing only five clean triple jumps and falling once.

Second after the short program, Cohen dropped behind Hughes and finished third.

"Of course I'm not 100 percent pleased, because I can do a lot better," Hughes said. "It's hard for me to look at the fact that I can't always be perfect.

"Especially coming off of Salt Lake."

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