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For the week of February 27 - March 5, 2002


A perfect night for sweet, smart Sarah

Skating is a team game 
for the Hughes family

Her pop mix in practice sessions includes Celine Dion, "The Space Between," by the Dave Matthews Band and Britney Spears…An honors student, her interests include reading mysteries, rollerblading and playing tennis. She plays the violin, and hopes to study medicine….Among her favorite quotes are: "When you work hard, you have fun," and "It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice."

Express Staff Writer

How do you solve a problem like perfection?

Sarah Hughes, a perfect blend of ebullient youth and poise, turned in an unforgettable four minutes of Ravel and triple jumps Thursday and did what all teenagers seem to do.

Skates, sticks and gloves—they’ve always been around. And the backyard skating rink has always been a Hughes family tradition. This Christmas card photo was snapped in Dec. 1990, when Sarah was five—a year before she skated in exhibitions with her idol, 1968 gold medalist Peggy Fleming. From left, Matthew, then 7; Sarah, 5; Emily, 22 months; Rebecca, 13; and David, 9. Parents John and Amy Hughes completed their hockey team a year later when Taylor was born. Courtesy photo

Before a sellout crowd of 16,000 sudden Sarah converts and 43 million on the tube, she put her parents in a quandry.

If you’re Canadian-born John Hughes, Sarah’s hockey-playing dad, you attack perfection with a relentless forecheck. You rely on your teammates, keep a smile on your face and an upbeat attitude in your head, chase the puck and trust hard work.

Four days after the biggest performance of Sarah’s life, you approve her first big endorsement, Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions, since Sarah collects special editions of the cereal boxes anyway and it’s totally wholesome.

John knows plenty about perfection. So does 16-year-old Sarah, who inherited her father’s competitive streak and is motivated by perfection.

Now if you’re John’s wife Amy Hughes, you keep things as normal as possible around your little Kings Point (L.I.) hockey team of six kids.

Unfortunately Amy has a huge shortcoming—she can’t bear to watch Sarah skate. It’s too nerve-wracking.

Everybody else loves it.

Certainly everybody in the Delta Center Thursday, on a simply perfect night when Sarah brought down the house and won the 2002 Olympic gold medal—the first American skater to win the gold before claiming a U.S. championship.

Amy wasn’t in her seat next to John in the Delta Center when Sarah completed her ethereal yet difficult program featuring seven triple jumps with two triple-triple combinations. She became the first female to land two triple-triple Olympic combinations.

Mom was roaming the hallways, fretting at ground level while Sarah was out there, reaching for the stars.

John quickly called Amy on his cell and went to collect his happy wife. Maybe the bronze medal, they figured, with the top three yet to skate. Really unbelievable she skated so well. What a great time to do it!

"I’ve never skated that well in my life!" said Sarah, truly amazed, the moment she came off the ice.

The rest is history. With her two brothers and three sisters watching in the arena, Sarah and coach Robin Wagner sank to their knees in astonishment when the other contenders stumbled and they realized the gold medal was theirs.

Sarah Hughes, the product of a big family, thus became the seventh sister—joining an exclusive golden club featuring Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski.

A perfect Cinderella story.

Dealing with the possibility Sarah’s gold medal could be worth up to $10 million in endorsements is the newest Hughes challenge. That’s high altitude for a high school junior who is worried about scores other than 5.8s.

When asked about her immediate goals after the Olympics, Sarah answered, perfectly poised, "Getting in the high 1500s on my SATs."

No stumbles there.

She’s all girl, though.

"I heard I scored over a thousand prom dates on Long Island," she laughed. Nassau County declared Sunday as "Sarah Hughes Day," in Great Neck. She may appear on "Saturday Night Live" this week. The beat goes on.

Her father is Sarah’s agent, for the time being. The tight-knit family can’t bear to have anyone else handling their child. After all, she’s 16.

John said, "Sarah has a huge responsibility now as gold medalist. Huge. But I think she’s ready. There are terrific opportunities for Sarah."

Besides meeting ‘N Sync.

Her parents have provided consistent messages all along. They’ve been dedicated to staying with her, wherever she has traveled. She has always lived at home. Always. She does chores, like everyone else.

Three years ago, after 13-year-old Sarah won the silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Croatia, John explained what the requirement of normalcy means within the Hughes clan.

"At home, Sarah is just one of six. She has to fight with everybody else for her TV shows," he said. "I wouldn’t want her going away and just hanging around a rink when she wasn’t skating.

"She’ll do fine with her skating. It’s after her skating that I’m thinking about."


A perfect season at Cornell

Rest assured John Hughes watched the gold medal hockey game between Canada and the U.S. on Sunday and rooted for Wayne Gretzky’s club.

Hughes, a proud Canadian and an adopted American, was the captain of the Cornell University hockey team that was called by its coach, Ned Harkness, "the greatest college hockey team ever."

Made up entirely of skaters from southern Ontario, the 1969-70 Cornell hockey team was simply perfect, at 29-0 the only undefeated college hockey team in Division 1 history.

It was the golden era of Eastern College Athletic Conference hockey, when Canadian imports formed the foundation of many college teams and American hockey was still in its formative stage.

Harkness, originally from Ottawa, recruited Hughes out of Scarborough, Ontario, near Toronto. Although he became one of American hockey’s founding fathers, Harkness never abandoned his loyalties.

Not only did he found the hockey program at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute near Albany in 1950, a year after becoming a naturalized American citizen, Harkness guided RPI to a national title in 1954 and a 180-90-7 mark from 1950-62.

However, when asked why he moved west to Ithaca on Cayuga Lake and took over the coaching job at Cornell in 1963, Harkness barked, "Because it’s 130 miles closer to Canada."

He lured 6-2 Ken Dryden out of Ontario, and the goalie known as the "Big Kid" won Harkness’ first national title for the Big Red in 1967. The next year Cornell was third at Duluth, and in 1969 second to Denver at Colorado Springs.

Three-time All-American Dryden then graduated, off to greatness for Montreal in the National Hockey League. Succeeding him was a compact, 5-6, 132-pound goalie named Brian Cropper, a junior Harkness got from Toronto.

Could Cornell regroup? Indeed, they did. They overcompensated on defense.

Without Dryden, Cornell won every game, outscoring opponents 179-55. Cropper was unbeatable. He surrendered just 53 goals. The Big Red won one-goal games over Harvard, Clarkson and Wisconsin, then beat Clarkson 6-4 in the finale.

Hughes was the first-line center, an unselfish, overachieving senior who finished with 68 goals and 83 assists in just 78 Cornell hockey games and exemplified the team’s role-playing spirit.

It was a squad without stars, a team with only one All-American, defenseman Dan Lodboa, who broke a 3-3 tie with Clarkson in the 1970 NCAA championship game at Lake Placid by scoring three goals in the third period.

In four years from 1967-70, Cornell went 110-5-1 on the sheet and won two NCAA titles.

Amy Pasternack was a Cornell junior from Long Island when her future husband was skating for the Big Red and working his miracles in Lynah Rink.

College campuses from 1967-70 were overcome with the roar of revolution, and Cornell was on the front lines. But Amy got into a crowd that lived and died with Cornell hockey and likened Dryden to royalty. Hockey provided a respite from the turmoil, on campus and off.

They met—the sandy-haired, boyish hockey player from Canada and the effervescent coed with the New York accent from Long Island. And they married, blending Canada and America into a partnership.

College graduates, smart and talented, respectful of the value of education, blue chip all the way, they started their own little hockey team.

John became a prominent tax and real estate attorney in New York. Amy was a certified public accountant. Their first child, Rebecca, was born in 1977 and went on to study at Harvard and become editor of the weekly Independent. Sarah was born in 1985.

She began skating at three because her sister and two older brothers, David and Matthew, all skated. She first took group classes when she was the youngest in a class of four- and five-year-olds.

On video tape, at age five, she declared her desire to win the Olympic gold medal. At nine, she skated alone on the ice between periods of New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden.

Regardless of the event, she was always competitive, Sarah said in an interview last year. In her family she was the earliest to walk, run and tie her skates. She knew exactly how to tie her skates and do it right. She always wanted to be first.

The strain of perfectionism extended to just about everything in Sarah’s life. She gave her older brothers the devil when they entered her room and messed it up.

She progressed rapidly through regionals and sectionals and won the U.S. junior championships at Philadelphia in Jan. 1998—while her mother Amy was undergoing successful treatment for breast cancer.

In Dec. 1998 she and her family traveled to Zagreb where Sarah won the silver medal in world juniors.

The result enabled Sarah to become the youngest competitor in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 world championships. She started a pleasing pattern of progressing technically and artistically at each event.

She was fifth at worlds in 2000 and third in 2001.

Her Skate Canada victory over Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya in November was Sarah’s first major title. At nationals, she placed third in 2000 and second in 2001 but dropped behind a spectacular Sasha Cohen into third place at the 2002 U.S. Nationals.

It had been very difficult just making the skilled U.S. Olympic team. Now the 2002 Winter Olympics loomed.

Sarah, completely in character, wasn’t satisfied with placing behind Cohen at nationals. She challenged herself by adding the tricky triple toe, triple loop combo to her long program.

After participating in the Olympic opening ceremony with her U.S. figure skating teammates, Hughes and coach Wagner slipped away to the World Arena in Colorado Springs where Sarah diligently worked on fine tuning.

Their plan of attack tinkered with all aspects of the routine.

They recut the soundtrack for Sarah’s long program, staying with Ravel’s "Daphnis and Chloe" for the entire four-minute routine and picking up the speed at the end, in a crescendo of cymbal crashes.

They brought Sarah to a celebrity hairdresser in New York City. He shortened her hair. The costumes had to fit her personality and project sophistication—and be perfect.

Sarah’s fourth-place result in the short program Feb. 19 may have given her a psychological boost and allowed the 5-5 skater to let it loose, throw caution to the wind and go for the gold.

In her long program, she skated with pure joy—casting aside control and trusting her pure skating talent. Sarah’s face lit up as she completed each triple and she wowed the crowd with sheer mastery of a very difficult routine.

Judges, perhaps convinced by the recent Olympic judging scandal to go with merit instead of voting on reputation, gave Sarah seven of a possible nine 5.8s for technical merit and six 5.8s for presentation.

Afterwards, Sarah Hughes said with a sunny outlook, "I think this is really just the beginning of my career."

She’ll be the Olympic champion forever. Maybe now, the summit of perfection reached once again within the Hughes family, her mother can peek through her fingers and watch Sarah do her thing.


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