Hughes turns teen talent into gold
American Michelle Kwan was by general consensus the best woman figure skater in the world. She had won multiple world titles since the last Olympic Winter Games and was considered clear favourite ahead of Russia’s Irina Slutskaya, who had finished second to Kwan at three separate world championships.
Slutskaya, meanwhile, had established herself as the best European skater, as evidenced by her four European titles, but in Salt Lake City she faced an American challenge that included not just the 21-year-old Kwan, but also a pair of talented teenagers Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes.
The short programme was just as close as expected, with Kwan just prevailing over Slutskaya. But the judges were divided, with five placing Kwan first and four favouring the Russian. The 17-year-old Cohen lay in third place, while Hughes, who was still just 16, was fourth.
However, the free skate changed everything. Hughes was the first of the leaders to take to the ice and she produced a programme that was both impressive and fault-free, if not exactly breathtaking. Registering scores of 5.7 and 5.8 across the board, she had certainly set a benchmark for the top two to aim for.
Kwan skated next, and looked nervous. She nearly fell early on when trying to pull off a triple flip, and had to put both hands down on the ice to stop herself tumbling over. The rest of her routine was not quite good enough to make up for the error, meaning that Hughes remained in the lead.
She retained it after Cohen had skated and then watched as Slutskaya entered the rink. The Russian knew that as long as she could skate to her normal standards the gold medal was hers for the taking. However, like Kwan, she failed to produce her best. While she didn’t have any major mishaps, several of her landings were not clean, something that did not escape the notice of several of the judges. While four put her first, the other five gave victory to Hughes.
The result put them level on factored placements, but in the event of a tie the rules said the gold would go to the skater who had performed better in the free programme – and that meant the 16-year-old Hughes was awarded the gold medal, leaving the Russian to settle for silver, and pre-tournament favourite Kwan to make do with the bronze.