Hughes Gets Her Chance After All

TURIN, Italy — It was a normal Saturday night for the Hughes family of Great Neck, N.Y., or as normal as life can be for a family of eight that includes 2002 Olympic figure skating champion Sarah Hughes and, seemingly, everyone they meet.

Emily Hughes, fifth of the six Hughes kids, had gone along with a plan to go out for sushi at a nearby restaurant whose menu features the sarahgold roll, named for "just someone we know," she joked.

They'd nearly finished eating when her father's cellphone rang, and although she heard only one end of the conversation, the smile that illuminated the face of her father, John, told her all she needed to know.

David Raith and Ron Hershberger, the top executives of U.S. Figure Skating, were calling from Turin to ask if she'd join the U.S. Olympic team in place of Michelle Kwan, who had decided to withdraw because of a groin pull.

"They asked me if I'd be happy to represent the U.S., and of course, I couldn't be happier," Emily Hughes said.

However, there was a catch: The family couldn't tell anyone for 12 hours.

"It was hard not to jump up and down, so we had to leave quickly so we could jump up and down at home," she said.

When she returned to earth, she found herself caught in a whirlwind. And a snowstorm, which paralyzed travel on the East Coast. She said she hadn't planned to travel to Turin until later this week because the women's competition doesn't begin until Feb. 21, but she got her winter before she got her Olympics.

"I can't wait to get there," she said Sunday during a conference call with reporters.

It's a journey she'd given up believing she'd make.

Kwan missed the U.S. championships last month in St. Louis because of a groin pull but petitioned for an injury bye onto the Olympic team. U.S. Figure Skating granted that request, pending Kwan's ability to prove her readiness.

Hughes, who'd finished third after a nasty fall in her long program at the national competition, was designated the Turin alternate behind newly crowned U.S. champion Sasha Cohen and runner-up Kimmie Meissner.

Kwan's Olympic berth was reaffirmed by a panel of judges on Jan. 27, a day after Hughes' 17th birthday. Hughes turned her thoughts away from the Olympics and to her debut in the world championships, next month in Calgary, Canada.

"There was always a possibility" that she might get a trip to Turin, "but I didn't really think about that because the Olympics had already started," she said.

When Kwan aggravated her groin during practice Saturday and decided to relinquish her spot, Hughes moved up the ladder and into the Olympics. She said she didn't mind having missed a chance to march in the opening ceremony because she'd seen it on TV, and she didn't mind being an understudy for so big a star as Kwan.

"I think it was fair that Michelle had all the opportunities to be named to the Olympic team," Hughes said. "Unfortunately, she was injured, and I was really just waiting on worlds. I wasn't thinking about the Olympics. And now the Olympics are coming up….

"I think I've been training hard, as worlds are coming up and I want to do well. I feel I'm ready."

Comparisons between Emily and Sarah Hughes are inevitable because of their close physical resemblance and their skating styles.

Each is about 5 feet 5 and has a muscular build, in contrast to the petite Cohen and the slender, coltish Meissner. Both sisters are well-spoken and have outgoing personalities. Both remained in the New York area to skate, rather than leave home. Emily has been coached by Bonni Retzkin since she was 4. Sarah was 16 when she competed at Salt Lake City, and Emily will be just a few weeks past her 17th birthday.

Sarah had more international experience and impressive results before she reached the Olympics. She had four years' experience at the senior national level, but Emily made her senior debut only last year.

Sarah also had won bronze medals at the 2001 and 2002 Grand Prix Finals and had given several fine performances at Grand Prix events, including a victory at Skate Canada in 2001. Emily's best result was a third-place performance at the 2005 world junior championships, and she finished fifth in each of her two Grand Prix assignments this season, Skate America and the Cup of Russia.

There were extenuating circumstances behind those fifth-place finishes, though. She had viral meningitis last summer that put her in the hospital for a week and left her unable to train for a month after that.

"I did start by being a little slow this year, but right before nationals I stepped up my training," she said. "At nationals, it was such a great experience to get onto the podium. I'm so excited to have the whole Olympic experience."