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Hughes was not among the favourites when the eagerly awaited ladies’ figure skating competition got under way at Salt Lake City 2002. With stars such as Michelle Kwan, Irina Slutskaya and Sasha Cohen in the field, few pinned their hopes on a skater who had yet to win a single national or international title.
A silver medallist in Nagano four years earlier, fellow American Kwan was a three-time and reigning world champion and the dominant force in the event. Russia’s Slutskaya had finished second to Kwan at the 1998 and 2001 World Championships and was the reigning European champion. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Cohen had scored better results on the domestic and international scene than her compatriot Hughes. At the US Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles a month before the Games, Hughes qualified in third place for Salt Lake City behind Kwan and Cohen.
The short programme only seemed to confirm that Hughes had some way to go before she could be considered a genuine Olympic contender. Penalised for under-rotating a triple flip and lutz, she lay fourth at the halfway stage of the competition, behind Kwan, Slutskaya and Cohen. It was a position from which no one had gone on to win gold in the history of Olympic ladies’ figure skating.
Hughes’ coach Robin Wagner was nevertheless confident that her skater would bounce back in the free. She was right, as the 16-year-old nailed her first jump, a double axel, before landing a triple toe loop-triple loop and a triple salchow-triple loop combination, the first such combination in the history of the competition.
Hughes grew in confidence during the course of her epic four-minute routine, which she performed to the sound of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. By its closure, she had executed seven triple jumps to perfection, leaving the spectators at the Salt Lake Ice Centre open-mouthed and earning marks of 5-7 and upwards from the judges.
Kwan followed Hughes out on to the ice, but saw her gold medal hopes vanish when she fell on landing a triple flip. It was one of several errors committed by the world champion, who lay second behind Hughes when the judges returned their verdict. When Cohen also fell, all that stood between Hughes and the gold was Slutskaya.
The Russian was also below her best, however, and could only finish second behind the unfancied Hughes, whose sparkling free programme had catapulted her into Olympic history. The bronze went to Kwan, who would ultimately remain one of the greatest figure skaters in history never to have won Olympic gold.
“I think a lot of people counted me out and didn’t think I could do it,” said Hughes, the first Olympic champion never to have won a national or international title before. “I didn’t even think it would be possible.”
On her return home to Great Neck, Long Island, Hughes was honoured with a parade through the streets, while her remarkable story was immortalised in a book entitled Sudden Champion: The Sarah Hughes Story.