Friday, August 10, 2007

Emily Hughes makes normal look good

Olympian and U.S. silver medalist visits Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

Reigning U.S. women?s figure skating silver medalist Emily Hughes, 18, of Great Neck, N.Y., practices last Saturday afternoon at the Sun Valley Outdoor Ice Rink in preparation for her first-ever appearance in the Sun Valley Ice Show later Saturday night. Photo by Willy Cook

Emily Hughes, a very busy 18-year-old, has a checklist like you wouldn't believe, but she did squeeze in her first-ever visit to Sun Valley last week for a headliner appearance in Saturday's Sun Valley Ice Show.

She was charming, approachable and receptive to the things that the mountains of Idaho offer to someone from the suburbs of New York City. Indeed, the possibilities seem limitless for a levelheaded girl who will attend her first classes at Harvard University in a month.

Consider for a moment: Emily Hughes is one of America's best figure skaters, the younger sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, and a self-avowed multi-tasking whiz kid who is planning to go where few if any elite figure skaters have ever gone before.

She plans to combine a full-time academic load at an Ivy League university with a competitive skating career. Emily will train under coaches Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson at the Skating Club of Boston while taking classes at Harvard in Cambridge as a freshman.

Is she looking forward to it?

The answer was a quiet but enthusiastic "yes" Saturday during her sun-splashed three-day stay in Sun Valley.

"I'm looking forward to the whole experience—dorming, having a roommate and a normal college life."

Emily said about her busy world, "It has all been a learning experience and I'm taking it one day at a time. There are so many things to do in skating—nationals, the Olympics, I was there once and want to go back—but the most important thing is just having fun."

"If anyone can do it, Emily can," said Bonni Retzkin, Emily's figure skating coach since Emily was 4 years old. "She has unbelievable self discipline and is a great competitor who always seems to rise to the occasion. I think she'll prove everyone wrong and do just fine."

Remember, older sister Sarah Hughes was 16 and a high school student when she surprised the world with her gold medal-winning long program at Salt Lake City five years ago. Sarah has pulled back from elite skating competition in her four years at Yale University ending in 2007.

It won't be easy. But Emily, fifth of six children of John and Amy Hughes of Great Neck, Long Island, has an amazing ability to compartmentalize her life and focus on the things that need to be done. She has always been that way, Retzkin said during their visit to Idaho.

"I would pick her up at school and she would always do her homework or read the book she needed to read on the way to the rink," Retzkin said. "She is used to being busy. She has a checklist. But she's a real people's person. She's friendly. She never says no to an autograph and does a lot of charities. She stands out in every respect—really, she's every coach's dream."

Very impressive was Emily's list of charity appearances in 2007 when she was a graduating senior at Great Neck North High School. Many were for cancer fundraising, which makes sense since her mother Amy had a bout with breast cancer 10 years ago.

In April, Emily and Amy attended a breast cancer awareness conference in Prague, Czech Republic. Amy gave a speech supported by photographs, and both mother and daughter attended a workshop on raising awareness and media coverage.

Emily plans to perform in a Skate for Hope charity event benefiting breast cancer research Sept. 29 in Columbus, Ohio, and then will do her thing for Boston's Jimmy Fund children's cancer research fund during an "Evening of Champions," exhibition Friday, Oct. 12, at Harvard.

"She has grown tremendously as a person and as a skater," Retzkin said.

While meeting all these obligations, Emily managed to finish near the top of her class academically.

All seven colleges to which she applied ended up accepting her this spring—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Barnard College, NYU and Cornell, where her parents went to school and first met when father John was captain of Cornell's undefeated national champion hockey team in 1970.

She narrowed her choices down to Columbia in New York City and Harvard, where the oldest of the Hughes children, Rebecca Parker, went for her undergraduate degree.

Emily is so close and committed to her longtime coach Retzkin that she considered Columbia for a long time before deciding on Harvard.

"It was between Columbia and Harvard, but if Emily had stayed home, it would have been for all the wrong reasons," Retzkin said. "I'll still coach her when she comes home."

Retzkin admitted that it will be hard for her when Emily goes off to college. Without children of her own, she has become a second mother to Emily. Retzkin and Emily's mother Amy are close and are constantly coordinating and communicating. It's easy, both say, because Emily is such an upbeat and happy person.

Emily, the reigning U.S. women's figure skating silver medalist and 2006 Olympian, did two show pieces at Saturday's show—"Proud Mary," choreographed by Mark Mitchell and "Stand by Me," a Carrie Underwood cover choreographed by Toronto's David Wilson.

Having two choreographers is part of her busy routine. Emily skates five days a week, takes ballet classes, attends personal training sessions twice a week, does Pilates and strength work, regularly meets with a physical therapist and takes her occasional trips to Toronto and Boston for meetings with Mitchell and Wilson.

Currently, Wilson is working on her new short program, "I Got Rhythm," while Mitchell is choreographing her new long program, an ambitious undertaking of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," scenic cantata.

Much of the classic, compositional structure of "Carmina Burana" involves the notion of turning the fortune wheel and includes the Latin phrases, translated to English, like "I am reigning, I have finished reigning, I am without reign and I shall reign."

Despite her emerging celebrity, Emily Hughes keeps much of what she thinks to herself but you can detect she is an astute, intellectual person who is coming to terms with the fortune wheel and circle of life.

She is coming to realize her strengths and limitations. Her reign as a normal adult is just starting.

"I love to skate, but there are so many things I can take away from this experience other than the ability to skate," Emily said.

She plans to compete Oct. 25-28 in the Skate America Grand Prix competitions in Reading, Pa., and Nov. 1-4 in Skate Canada at Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, leading up to the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships next Jan. 20-27 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Having said all these nice things about Emily Hughes, though, it's important to lend some perspective with the "dress" and the "bike helmet," so that everyone can understand Emily is, well, Emily.

The "dress" incident took place shortly before Emily was due on the ice for warm-ups at January's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash. That is when Emily, the girl with all her ducks in a row, realized that her specially designed skating dress was still hanging up in the closet of the hotel.

It was certainly time to panic! Imagine having the eyes of the world upon you, as you perform in your warm-ups instead of your pretty dress.

Retzkin said, "She's doing her stretching and I said, where's your dress? She said, it's back at the hotel!" Off went Retzkin on a dead sprint to the nearby hotel. The dress arrived and Emily, instead of being upset, said afterward that she had the best warm-up of her life.

That's an example of how even the checklists of Emily Hughes can withstand, shall we say, last-minute adjustments.

"That's how focused she is. She's so good under pressure," said Retzkin about her girl, who went out and claimed the national silver medal one year after taking the U.S. bronze.

Emily said about her objectives, "Every time I go out I want to skate better and have a new personal best."

And here's the "bike helmet" example.

Before I left Retzkin and Emily Saturday after our meeting and lunch on Sun Valley Lodge Terrace, they asked me to take a photo of them on their rented mountain bikes, next to the rink. Their morning activity had been a ride on the bike path from Sun Valley to Ketchum and the two city kids had enjoyed a terrific time.

Emily, hitting her marks as always, instantly had her bike helmet on and looked like every other teenage girl who comes to Sun Valley and tries to figure out why the simple things like riding a bike are so much fun under the summer sun. She made looking normal look pretty good.

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