Sometimes the leading players in a given sport can be so focused on each other that they inadvertently allow a completely unexpected rival to sneak through and claim glory. It’s a little harsh to say Sarah Hughes was a complete shock victor in the women’s figure skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City but, given the quality of the field, it must go down as one of the sport’s greatest upsets.
All eyes were on Hughes’ American team-mate Michelle Kwan, who had dominated the scene with four world titles in the previous six years running up to the Games in Utah. Kwan won her first title aged just 15 and was edged out of gold by team mate Tara Lipinski in Nagano in 1998.
By the time the 2002 Games came around Kwan was viewed as a veteran but still the clear favourite with Russian Irina Slutskaya and Kwan’s team-mate Sasha Cohen her principle rivals. The event was seen as a three-way race for gold, but they hadn’t bargained on Hughes.
The short program played out to form with Slutskaya, who would win the world championships in Nagano later in the year, just edging Kwan into second with Cohen rounding out the top three.
Hughes was fourth and later admitted she surged onto the rink for her long program with the burdens of pressure lifted from her shoulders.
It would lead to four minutes of unrestrained, confident choreography which would have the three favourites doubting all their ability to take gold. Hughes nailed jump after jump and the crowd at the Salt Lake Ice Center greeted her performance with deafening, prolonged roars of approval. The performance must have sent a surge of nerves through Kwan, Slutskaya and Cohen; suddenly they were favourites no more.
Kwan fell to the ice while performing a triple flip before Slutskaya also put in a shaky performance with a number of her landings on the wobbly side. Hughes, who had been made to wait an unbearably long time as the other skaters completed their second skate, had won it, becoming the first skater to ever come from fourth after the short program to win gold.
It would prove to be Hughes’ one and only major event victory. A year later Hughes opted to retire from competitive skating and went into full-time education.