Hughes wants all in on the Olympics this time

Updated: January 21, 2010, 3:01 PM ET
Associated Press

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The Turin Games were well under way by the time Emily Hughes became an Olympian. The opening ceremony was over, the flame was in full blaze, a couple of gold medals had even been handed out.

At the time, Hughes didn't mind. She had dreamed of skating in the Olympics her whole life and there she finally was. It hardly mattered whether she was the No. 1 pick for the team or a last-minute substitute, whether she was the first to arrive at the Olympic village or sauntered in as they were shutting down the place.

This time, she wants it all.

"I want to go to the opening ceremony," she said.

Not that getting there will be easy. The Americans have only two spots in Vancouver -- only the second time since 1924 they've failed to earn the maximum number -- and there are a half-dozen women at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships who could claim them.

Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen is back after a long layoff, looking in practices as if she'd never stepped away. Alissa Czisny and Mirai Nagasu are the last two U.S. champions. Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang have each held the junior world title. Ashley Wagner has been the most consistent of the Americans this season, the only one to reach last month's Grand Prix final.

But Hughes, younger sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, has pulled off bigger surprises before.

"The field is deep here, as it is every year," she said. "I'm going to work really hard and try to get one of those Olympic spots."

The women's competition begins Thursday night with the short program. The final is Saturday.

Hughes finished third at the 2006 nationals only to be passed over in favor of Michelle Kwan, who'd petitioned for a medical bye onto the team. While Kwan went off to Italy, Hughes went back home, training for the world championships and studying for her SATs.

But Kwan aggravated a groin injury at her very first practice in Turin. Less than 24 hours after watching the opening ceremony at home with her family, Hughes got a call asking her to step in. She arrived almost a week after the games began and just four days before her event started, yet still finished seventh.

With the inevitable turnover that follows an Olympics, the 17-year-old seemed well-positioned to be among the world's best in the leadup to Vancouver. Indeed, she finished second to world champion Kimmie Meissner at the 2007 nationals right here in Spokane. If not for a fall on a triple flip near the end of the program, the title would have been hers.

Always as much a student as a skater, Hughes enrolled at Harvard later that fall. She would continue to compete, she insisted, training in Boston and working with longtime coach Bonni Retzkin whenever she went home.

The juggling act didn't go quite as she hoped.

"If I had to do it again, I wouldn't have done anything differently," said Hughes, who is studying government and sociology at Harvard. "Education is really important to me. I tried to do both, and that didn't work."

When she withdrew from last year's nationals with an ankle injury, the second straight she'd missed, most assumed her competitive career was done. As Hughes watched the championships from school, however, she realized she wanted one more shot.

"It was disappointing not to be there," she said.

She moved back home when the school year was done and resumed training with Retzkin, her coach since she was 4 years old. She took the year off from Harvard, where she still has two more years to go.

Comebacks, though, are never easy, and Hughes' has been no different. It wasn't until September that she was doing triple lutzes again. Because she had missed the last two nationals, she had to go through qualifying. Only after Cohen withdrew from Skate America with tendinitis did Hughes get a spot in a Grand Prix. She finished seventh.

Yet here she is, back for another run at the Olympics.

"It's been a long road back, but I'm happy," Hughes said. "I'm excited for this competition."

Though hers is not among the first names mentioned as possible contenders, Hughes is confident she has just as good a shot as anyone. She is skating as well as she ever has, and a confidence that comes from lessons learned on -- and off -- the ice.

She's also got her lucky gold sneakers and a very large cheering section. Her parents, sister Sarah, and all but one of her other four siblings will be on hand to support her.

"You come to win," Hughes said. "And that's what I want to try and do."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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