Gold Fishbowl

Times Staff Writer

What if mathematics and fate hadn't worked precisely in Sarah Hughes' favor at Salt Lake City? What if she had stumbled ever so slightly in her long program, or if Michelle Kwan hadn't fallen in hers?

If Hughes had won the Olympic bronze medal instead of gold, how would her life be different now?

"I remember hoping and praying and thinking, 'Please, let this be it. Let this be right,' " Hughes said of the moment she and Coach Robin Wagner, sitting in a locker room at the Delta Center, learned of her victory from a TV cameraman and sank to the floor amid shrieks of joy. "I knew what we'd been through, and although I was only 16, it was a difficult and very long road with a lot of commitment. I've been skating since I was about 3 years old, seriously.

"It was amazing. First, I wanted to make sure, 'Are they correct?' In case they weren't correct, I wanted to enjoy it."

It was correct. Skating to "Daphnis et Chloe," Hughes layered a feeling of airy delicacy over an intricate routine. When Kwan, Irina Slutskaya and Sasha Cohen faltered, Hughes made the unprecedented leap from fourth to first.

"I wouldn't say there was nothing to lose and everything to gain because, to me, there's a big difference between fourth or fifth," she said. "I do well with a lot of freedom, and I went out with a free spirit and clear mind."

It was the performance of her life, and it spawned a whirlwind. Everyone wanted a piece of her, whether for her benefit or theirs. A friend says the Hughes family divides the world into two categories: "before people," whom they knew and trusted prior to her victory, and those who began glad-handing when her star rose.

And it has risen to dizzying heights. Her picture has been on Wheaties boxes and Campbell's soup cans, and she appeared with her parents and five siblings in a TV special centered on their loving, playful bond. A modern "Ozzie and Harriet," with the kids as skaters and scholars and Harriet played by warm and earthy Amy Hughes, a breast-cancer survivor with a "Lawn Guyland" accent.

"She's certainly not the kid I knew a year ago," Wagner said. "Her core values remain the same. She's a good girl, a nice person, a caring person, and that certainly hasn't changed. She's a little more guarded, maybe. Not in a negative way, but along the lines of, 'Who are really my friends?'

"I think her circle of people close to her has gotten a little bit tighter, a little bit closer. And I think that's important. I think that's good. As long as she has people she can fully open up to and trust and talk to, she'll get through this fine."

The world has met Sarah Hughes and she has met the world. Already blessed with the smarts to win admission to Harvard, the Great Neck (N.Y.) North High senior marvels at the vistas that have opened before her because of that one magical night.

"It's not a four-minute performance. It's four minutes and then a lifetime after that," said Hughes, who turned 17 three months after the Games. "I didn't think it would affect the rest of my life, but other Olympic champions told me life would never be the same afterward. And of course I laughed in their face when they told me, but what can I say? They were right -- so far."

Hughes can make history again this week in Dallas, at the U.S. Championships. No female U.S. Olympic figure skating gold medalist has competed in the national championships the next year: not Tenley Albright, the first U.S. women's Olympic champion in 1956, Carol Heiss, 1960; Peggy Fleming, 1968; Dorothy Hamill, 1976; Kristi Yamaguchi, 1992, or Tara Lipinski, 1998. In fact, Hughes is the first female figure skating gold medalist to keep her Olympic eligibility since East Germany's Katarina Witt, who won in 1984, then repeated in 1988.

But Albright and the other female U.S. gold medalists had won national titles before their Olympic triumphs, and Hughes has not. She was third at the 2000 competition, second in 2001 and third last year at Los Angeles. She was fifth at the 2000 World Championships and third in 2001 but skipped last year's event because post-Olympic obligations and schoolwork cut too deeply into her training time.

"There's a lot of challenges here," said her father, John, a lawyer and former Cornell hockey player. "The Olympics are obviously the most high profile, but kids have a lot of other challenges that are less high profile, like growing up and going to school and all that. She's the type of kid with intellectual curiosity. She doesn't pass up too much, and wants to try it all."

Her return to competition has not been smooth. Preparing for the TV special ate up much of her summer, and she placed third Oct. 5 at the Campbell's International event in Florida. A torn leg muscle prompted her to withdraw from her Grand Prix assignments and she didn't compete again until she finished second at the Crest Whitestrips International Challenge Dec. 13 at Auburn Hills, Mich., and third at the Hallmark pro-am Dec. 14 at Columbus, Ohio. In the meantime, Kwan won Skate America and Sasha Cohen won Skate Canada and Trophee Lalique. Kwan, a six-time U.S. champion, and Cohen loom as Hughes' main rivals this week.

"It's always been great for me to build my confidence early in the season with this series and get my feet on the ice," she said. "But I didn't, so what can I do about it now? I'm sure I'll be fine. I have competed a lot internationally over the last couple of years. It's not like I've been sitting home, watching TV and eating potato chips."

Hardly. More like polishing two new programs at rinks on Long Island and in Hackensack, N.J., completing college applications and fulfilling endorsement obligations. When she can, she visits children's hospitals, unannounced and unaccompanied by reporters. She visited two the day after Christmas.

"I asked her once what she had learned and she said, 'I learned that you don't have to be a celebrity to make a difference,' " John Hughes said. "Some of those kids were 4, 5 years old and had no idea who she was, but they knew she was there, holding their hands, bringing them presents. That's what mattered to them."

The rest of the world, though, seems to be made up of critics.

As she steadily ascended the competitive ladder, she and Wagner discussed the heightened expectations that follow success and how graciously Kwan handles pressure and remains true to herself.

Hughes knows that everything from her tendency to flutz -- take off on the wrong edge of her blade for a lutz jump -- to her most innocuous comments will be scrutinized.

"Of course, now if I'm anything less than perfect, it's natural people will think I should always be perfect or I will always be perfect," Hughes said. "I've come to a lot of conclusions lately. One of them is that if I don't even try, then what good is any of it? I could just stop and I'll always be the Olympic champion and I'll leave [thinking] maybe that no one could beat me. But that's not fun.

"Sometimes this won't be fun, either. I know I will get beaten, but hopefully I'll win again. It's the sport and it's something I really respect about a lot of people who have stayed in the sport after they've won, especially Katarina Witt."

But as she gets deeper into her senior year of high school, she faces tough choices.

Although Hughes was admitted to Harvard, she would have to end her collaboration with Wagner, who doesn't want to leave her family in New York. Columbia, in upper Manhattan, is across the Hudson River from their New Jersey practice rink and a tolerable commute. Hughes also might opt for a taste of independence at Yale or Princeton, which are within driving distance -- but not drop-in distance -- of Long Island.

To the chagrin of her father, Cornell -- her parents' alma mater -- is out of the picture.

"The other day he was joking and said, 'Sarah, if I had it my way you'd be at Cornell, playing hockey,' " she said, laughing.

The next decision is whether she can take a full class load and keep her competitive edge. Add her work with GE's Heroes for Health initiative, which honors health professionals, and Campbell's Labels for Education program, which gives learning materials to schools, and she'll need 30-hour days.

"That's going to be a big balancing act," Wagner said. "She hasn't made a decision yet on whether she wants to take a year off. I think she wants to see how this year goes.

"She has to say, 'How do I feel? Do I have the competitive spirit and fire in the belly to go out there and put myself on the line every single time?' That's a decision only she can make."

She gives few hints.

"It's incredibly difficult to keep some balance, whether you're doing a school sport or international skating," said Hughes, whose 13-year-old sister Emily will vie for the junior title this week. "It has been rewarding so far and has paid off in dividends for me. Maybe next year, I'll have to do something different. We'll see. There are always things I want to improve and get better and compete, but it's always to what extent? ... It's something I have to decide by myself. I'm lucky that I have people that will support me.

"The Olympics were a great experience. It definitely tests your mettle. I thought that would be the thing that tested me the most. Every day, I'm tested even more because of that event in terms of everything I do and how I've learned to have more composure."

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