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Monday, March 19
Hughes has eyes on medals podium


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - - The roots of Sarah Hughes' challenge for a medal, perhaps even gold, at the World Figure Skating Championships are founded in her most difficult period this season.

While doing simple crossovers early last summer, Hughes tumbled heavily to the ice. She broke her hand as she fell into the sideboards and also hit her head on the ice, suffering a mild concussion.

For a 15-year-old seemingly headed for the top of the skating world, it was one immense fall.

Injuries made this a difficult season for Sarah Hughes, but winning a World Championship will prove to be her best medicine.
"I came back, but I lost two months of training, and it was really hard to come back and focus and to know what I had to do," Hughes said as she prepared for worlds, which begin Monday with men's qualifying. "And to get back in shape.

"I think I had to depend so much more on myself than other people. A lot of people I don't think believed in me, so I had to really trust myself."

She also had to trust those closest to her, particularly coach Robin Wagner. For Hughes and Wagner, this season was to be a critical one in the skater's development. She was third and fourth in the previous two national championships and finished a strong fifth at the 2000 worlds. With the Salt Lake City Olympics on the horizon, Hughes needed to establish her international credentials.

Then ... boom. Even when the physical problems healed, there were other concerns.

"Emotionally, she was down on herself," Wagner said. "She was disappointed. We had a very planned-out, structured summer for training development and we couldn't follow that as we wanted to. We had to do a lot of replanning and rethinking to make sure the time didn't get wasted.

"It was a real turning point, I think, for both of us - in our relationship, I think in Sarah's career. I think through that difficult time she really grew a lot. It turned out to be a very positive experience."

While Hughes still is considered something of an outsider for worlds, she has displayed the technical skills, grace and composure necessary to be a factor. Not just in Vancouver, either, but next February in Salt Lake City, too.

Hughes performed especially well at the Grand Prix final in Tokyo last month, placing third ahead of Russia's Maria Butyrskaya, the 1999 world champion. Although Hughes didn't make the gold medal showdown that was won by Irina Slutskaya of Russia over five-time U.S. and three-time world winner Michelle Kwan, she made a strong impression.

"Sarah is really coming on with her skating," Kwan said. Hughes finished second to Kwan at Skate America, second in Germany and third in Russia in the Grand Prix series. Overall, despite the unfortunate start, it has been the kind of positive season she and Wagner hoped for.

"It has been on a rise," Hughes said. "Each performance has good things and bad things and it's kind of hard to compare. You will be concentrating on one thing and it will be so much better, but then something that might have been a little better somewhere else is not as good.

"Every day I think I am learning something or am more prepared for something that is thrown at me."

Wagner readily agrees.

"It was learning a little bit about herself," Wagner said. "She opened up and started to really listen, because I think she had to trust somebody else a little more, because she couldn't be in total control of the situation. It was a very important time for her."

As will be this week - and the 11 months that follow, leading to the 2002 Olympics.

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