Sarah Hughes was answering questions about her future with the same genuine, endearing qualities the girl from Long Island showed when she won the women’s figure skating title in the 2002 Olympics.
Answering, but not telling.
Plan to compete again?
“I didn’t think I’d be skating this year,” Hughes said in a recent telephone conversation. “I changed my mind. … I really don’t know.”
Are the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, in your plans?
“I don’t really know right now. A lot depends on how I’m feeling after the tour, and whether I want to put a summer of training in like that.”
The tour is Smucker’s Stars on Ice. Hughes, 19, will make her much-anticipated debut with the theatrical figure skating production. The 60 U.S.-city tour will make its second stop Thursday at the Spokane Arena after opening Wednesday in Seattle. It will end April 9 in Portland, Maine. The show, titled “Imagination,” previewed Nov. 27 in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The co-headliners are 2002 Olympic gold medalist Alexei Yagudin, of Russia, and pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, of Canada, and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, of Russia. The foursome is most remembered for sharing the gold medal in Salt Lake City after the judging scandal that dominated the first week of the 2002 Olympics.
Also performing are world champion and six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, world champion Yuka Sato, U.S. pairs champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, and world bronze medalists and eight-time British national champion Steven Cousins.
Ilia Kulik, 1998 Olympic men’s champion, will appear as a special guest star.
‘Best job in skating’
Hughes took time off from college after finishing her freshman year at Yale University. She’s been to the White House several times, has made numerous public appearances and most recently performed in the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting TV special. NBC has asked her to produce two prime-time specials.
In a meeting with President Bush, Hughes discussed one of her personal causes, the plight of Afghan women and children. She said she had been planning to go to Afghanistan with Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynn, along with other women, to deliver textbooks. The trip never happened, because it became too dangerous.
“I’ve always made it a point to go to school,” said Hughes, the fourth of six children. “Education has played a vital role in my upbringing and in my life, even today. I wanted to help kids in other countries who didn’t have an opportunity to go to school or read a book.”
Hughes also traveled to the 2004 Athens Olympics, where she worked as a reporter for New York’s WCBS-TV.
“It was very cool being a journalist,” said Hughes, who is leaning toward majoring in psychology. “Greece was an amazing experience.”
Hughes, who has a grandparent and an aunt who live in Seattle, has never been to the Northwest. She said she had every intention of competing in Spokane at the Smart Ones Skate America in October 2002.
Spokane was ready for the young Olympic break-out star, as posters and advertisements were displayed all over town. Two six-story banners of Hughes were draped outside what was then the Metropolitan Financial Center on First Avenue. Less than a week before the international competition, Hughes pulled out because of a tear in the muscle behind her right knee.
“I heard about the banner. I’m sorry I missed that,” Hughes said. “I was so disappointed I couldn’t go.”
Michelle Kwan saved the day for skating fans, as well as the local promoters, by stepping in. Not surprisingly, the eight-time U.S. national champ won the event, outperforming a group of lesser-known athletes.
Hughes, who has grown an inch since the Olympics to 5-foot-6, said she hopes a lot of fans come to watch Stars on Ice.
“I’ve loved this show since I was 5 years old or 6 years old. This summer when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next year, obviously going to school is an option, but … I thought maybe I want to skate, and this is probably the best job in skating.”
‘It takes time’
However, Hughes is keeping her options open for competing again. Before signing a one-year deal with Stars on Ice, Hughes received a waiver from U.S. Figure Skating that keeps her eligible for the 2006 Olympics. Her former coach, Robin Wagner – who provided a warm-and-fuzzy Olympic moment when she and her student rejoiced after Hughes won gold – is coaching Sasha Cohen.
Hughes, who is without an official coach, last skated competitively in 2003, finishing second in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and sixth at the World Championships.
As geographical coincidence would have it, next week’s U.S. Nationals are in Portland. Although Hughes will miss the event, the family will be represented by Emily Hughes, Sarah’s 15-year-old sister, who will compete in the senior ladies class.
Sarah won’t be able to zip over to Portland to watch because she has shows the nights of both the ladies short and long programs. However, the rest of the Hughes family will be there.
While judges in Portland will be picking apart every triple-triple jump at nationals, Hughes said she’s not ready to try the move in the Stars on Ice show.
“I will not be doing triple-triples in the show right now. Basically, I took so much time off, I need a little more time to get back into it,” she said. “It takes time, it takes practice.”
And with an Olympic gold under her belt, winning it at age 16 – the fourth youngest Olympic women’s figure skating champion – she has plenty of time.
“It’s not only the 2006 Olympics. I still have an option for 2010,” she said. “I’m 19 years old. I was so young in Salt Lake.”