Sarah Hughes: 2002 Olympic gold medalist in figure skating

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 3, 2002

Sarah Hughes had a heart-to-heart with President Bush, met ‘N Sync (twice!) and won an Olympic gold medal in figure skating.

Oh yeah, in between all that, the honors student attends school in Great Neck, N.Y., where she’ll be a senior next fall.         Hughes plans to compete next year. But her immediate goal isn’t the 2006 Olympics. It’s all about scoring well on the SAT.

“I’m really exhausted right now,” says Hughes, who turned 17 on Thursday. “I’ve been trying to do everything so I’m really busy. But it’s been wonderful. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many really interesting people.”

Hughes is the star attraction at the “Champions on Ice 2002 Olympic Tour,” which makes a stop Saturday at the United Center.

The Olympian enjoys tennis and playing the violin when she isn’t studying or skating. And she is a savvy interviewee. She’s also honest in the way kids are about expressing her opinions. Hughes is polite enough to answer anything you ask her, but the teenager in her comes out when asked something she finds inappropriate.

Ask her what it’s like getting top billing over Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya–two skaters who were favored to beat her at the Winter Olympics in February–in the “Champions on Ice 2002 Olympic Tour,” and she gets flustered and a little annoyed.

“Everything’s fine,” she says. “We all enjoy the tour and I’m having a great time skating. Irina’s not even on the tour right now.”

Hughes is happier when questioned by skating fans Tabitha Kim and Breece Pignaz, a pair of seventh-graders from Madison Junior High School in Naperville. The trio giggle like the schoolgirls they are in a question-and-answer session that covers boys, medical school and, well, more boys.

Tabitha asks if boys are clamoring to ask her out now that she’s a gold medalist. She also wants to know when Hughes decided on becoming a doctor.

“Oh, I’ve made so many friends in the last few months, not just boys,” says Hughes, laughing. “I can’t choose! And I knew I wanted to study medicine when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. I spent a lot of time in the hospital with her and that’s what sparked my interest.”

Breece follows up by asking what it was like to have ‘N Sync request an audience with her.

“It was really fun to take my picture with them,” says Hughes. “I e-mailed the pictures to everyone I knew and said, ‘Look who I met!'”

Pausing, Hughes adds, “I actually met them twice.”

Ditto for President Bush. She had a 15-minute private meeting with him in the Oval Office last week and discussed “important issues about the future of Afghan women’s rights.” She said hello to him again a few days later when she was invited back to the White House for a special dinner honoring the entire U.S. Olympic team.

Unlike many elite skaters who move away from home to train, Hughes still lives with her family.

“It’s the only way I have trained, so I don’t know if I would be better if I had trained away from home,” says Hughes. “I did OK my way, though. The most important thing for me to do well in a competition is to have confidence. If I feel good and my body feels good and my skates feel hard, then I do well. I’ve practiced since I was 3 years old and I do a lot of visualization. Some athletes try to be really calm when they compete, but I get better when I’m really pumped up.”

College is a definite for Hughes, who may follow her sister to Harvard. But the next Olympics is something she may or may not pursue.

“I don’t know what my future holds,” says Hughes, whose next goal is to earn a perfect score on her college entrance exam. “I will compete next year, but I haven’t decided about the next Olympics. This Olympics was so perfect and I’m still enjoying my memories from that. I don’t think anything can possibly be that perfect again.”

Except, perhaps, scoring a 1,600 on the SAT.

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