Thursday, February 21, 2002
Updated: February 22, 12:20 PM ET
Kwan falters again; Hughes comes from nowhere
SALT LAKE CITY -- Another American teen-ager is wearing the Olympic gold medal that was supposed to belong to Michelle Kwan.
Sarah Hughes, with the performance of her young life, soared from fourth place to win the free skate and the title Thursday night in one of the biggest upsets in Olympic figure skating history.
While Hughes played the same role as Tara Lipinski four years ago, Kwan made two major mistakes to fall to third, behind Russian Irina Slutskaya, who won the silver medal.
"I skated for pure enjoyment," the 16-year-old Hughes said. "That's how I wanted my Olympic moment to be."
It was a moment that stunned nearly everyone -- including the New Yorker who was sitting in the dressing room when Kwan and Slutskaya fell off the top spot in the podium with ordinary programs.
"I think a lot of people counted me out and didn't think I could do it," Hughes said. "I didn't even think it would be possible, so just to be sitting here with this medal around my neck, I didn't think it could happen."
When the final marks were announced, her coach, Robin Wagner, dragged Hughes off a bench onto the floor as both women screamed and tears began flowing.
"We were both so shocked, because it wasn't even on the radar screen," Wagner said.
Hughes is a year older than Lipinski was at the Nagano Games. She also was a much longer shot to win because Lipinski owned a world title in 1998. Hughes' best was a bronze at last year's world championships.
And Kwan is a far more accomplished skater now, with four world and six U.S. titles.
"I think I was a little more disappointed in Nagano, just because I skated much better," Kwan said. "Tonight it was one of those things. I don't know what didn't go my way."
Kwan lost again because a skater's final total is reached by adding "factored placements" for both the short and long programs. Until Slutskaya skated, Kwan's combined score would have been enough to beat Hughes.
But Slutskaya's performance in the free skate earned her second and pushed Kwan into third.
"I have experienced so much the last four years," Kwan said, "and I realized it doesn't matter the color of medal."
But then she showed off a plastic gold medal she was given by 1976 gold medalist Dorothy Hamill.
"I know it's not as heavy as this one," she said, comparing Hamill's gift to the real thing. Then looking at the elusive gold, she added, "This is the color of medal I would have liked."
That color belonged to Hughes, but it easily could have been Slutskaya's. She's now finished ahead of Kwan in seven of their last nine meetings, but she was too conservative as the final skater.
Slutskaya didn't bother with any triple-triple combinations that have become her trademark. She had a sloppy landing on a triple flip and her program lacked fire.
Still, she appeared stunned and angry she didn't win. The difference was a tiebreaker with the judge from Finland, who gave Hughes the edge in artistry.
She was more composed after the medals ceremony.
"I fight with my nerves and I skate good," Slutskaya said, "and I was so surprised after my free skating about my second marks. It's very interesting, every year I have good first marks and down second marks.
"But it is sport, but really a shame."
Hughes showed none of the tension of her short program, rollicking through seven triple jumps, five in combination -- more difficult than the ones Kwan and Slutskaya attempted. Wagner leapt as high as her student after Hughes nailed a huge triple toe loop-triple loop combo.
The smile on Hughes' face grew along with the crowd's din, and she nearly doubled over in joy when she finished a captivating program. Wagner, meanwhile, practically jumped over the sideboards to hug the youngster, who responded magnificently in the biggest moment of her life.
"It's a good thing I am not taller," Wagner said. "Otherwise, I would have had a problem."
The problems for the 21-year-old Kwan came early. She two-footed a triple toe loop in combination and fell on a triple flip.
As she awaited her marks, Kwan sat holding the hand of her father, Danny. Kwan split with longtime coach Frank Carroll last October, so he wasn't anywhere nearby.
It was eerily reminiscent of how she lost to Lipinski.
"It's a bummer, but it is competition," she said. "I just had to remind myself, 'It's OK. It's OK."'
Nerves seemed to get to Hughes on Tuesday night in the short program. But once she hit the ice Thursday and landed her first combination, she was flying to heights few predicted when she finished third at nationals last month behind Kwan and Sasha Cohen.
Cohen was fourth here.
"I didn't want to skate for a gold medal," Hughes said. "I went out and had a great time. I said, 'This is the Olympics. I want to do the best."'
And she is the best, a spot Kwan and Slutskaya had in their grasp.
Nor was it meant to be for Cohen, who was third after the short program. The precocious 17-year-old two-footed a triple lutz and fell on a triple toe. Her routine lacked footwork, as well, and she seemed to realize her medal chances were gone as soon as she left the ice.
Hughes is the seventh American, third in the last four games -- and the most unexpected of all -- to skate off with Olympic gold.