Sarah Hughes watches herself without a trace of embarrassment. It’s hard to reconcile the bubbly 14-year-old sitting in front of the television with the heart-stopping vision of grace and style who glides effortlessly across the ice in the video clip we’re watching. The footage was captured at the recent Keri Lotion USA vs. The World Figure Skating Challenge, and the commentators are wildly enthusiastic about Hughes’ form.
“She has a very gentle, soft skating; the edges are very smooth and quiet,” raves one sportscaster. “She’s an elegant young lady who is really mature beyond her 14 years,” comes another compliment. And the most enthusiastic of all? “Her inside spiral is a real challenge to Michelle Kwan’s inside spiral.”
Hughes just giggles at this high praise. Michelle Kwan, after all, is a four-time U.S. champion who also has two world titles under her belt. “If they say things like this at the Worlds, it will be a very good Worlds,” is Hughes’ calm assessment. She’s talking just a week before she’s due to jet off to France to compete in her second World Championships.
In the family room of her Kings Point, New York home, she’s just a kid — surrounded by the Disney videos and storybooks that spill out of the ceiling-to-floor shelving. On the ice, however, it’s a whole other story. Sarah Hughes, to steal a boxing metaphor, floats like a butterfly.
Even her parents, who have seen it all before, hundreds of times, are awed into silence by their daughter’s accomplished poise. “This one always makes me cry,” admits her mom, watching Sarah execute a dazzling series of spins, loops and turns. On the giant screen T.V., she fills every inch of the screen in close-up, beaming widely as her routine finishes and an adoring audience jump to their feet in a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.
Sarah Hughes strapped on her first pair of skates at the tender age of four; by seven she was gliding across the rink in competitions. She has since taken part in such prestigious competitions as the U.S. Championships, the Trophee Lalique, the Vienna Cup, the World Championships (at both junior and senior levels) and the Mexico Cup.
A week after our interview, she takes to the ice for her umpteenth competition. The Worlds are being held in Nice, France this year, and while Michelle Kwan is hoping to capture her third world title, Sarah is hoping just to improve on last year’s performance. In fourth place after the short program, she skates beautifully in the long program, with just two hitches after the complicated triple/triple jump. It’s a difficult move to execute, and Kwan is the only skater who pulls it off flawlessly. The commentators are surprised and disappointed at the scores afforded to Sarah, but one muses that she is possibly being told to wait her turn. As the youngest competitor there, she has plenty more years in which to medal at the Worlds. As it is, she achieves her goal, moving from seventh place last year to fifth out of 12 this time around.
“It’s upsetting when you don’t skate well,” she remarks, “but you always learn a lot, whether it’s a good experience or a bad experience. What’s good about skating is that you can just keep coming back. There’s always the next time to go and prove yourself again.”
Does she ever feel like quitting? “Not usually,” she answers. “I think there are always times when you might say, `Oh, I can’t do this any more,’ but, you know, luckily for me, I haven’t seriously had that problem yet.”
Through all of her wins and her losses, cheering her on every step of the way have been her devoted parents John and Amy, and her five siblings (three older, two younger). Along the way, the close-knit family has battled cancer — Amy is currently in remission — and managed to keep a balanced home life for Sarah. Most skaters her age live away from home and have long since given up attending `regular’ school. But John Hughes is glad that his second-oldest daughter is still going to classes alongside her friends, even if it’s just for a few hours each day.
During the course of our interview, Sarah’s two younger sisters — ten-year-old Emily and Taylor, 8 — bound into the room; casually adding their own observations and answering questions for their sister. (“Did you expect to have a normal interview with six children?” jokes their energetic mother.) Around their ankles yaps a little dog the family are minding for a friend and Sarah finds it hard to sit still, desperately wanting to walk the dog before she’s due at the skating rink.
When Sarah Hughes was just a little scrap of a thing, her older brothers Matt and David (now aged 16 and 18 respectively) started developing an interest in ice hockey, an interest that had probably come from their father, who was heavily into the sport during his time at Cornell University. It’s an athletic bent that also harks back to John’s father and Sarah’s grandfather, William Hughes, who left his native Northern Ireland for Toronto when he was 19, after a shoulder injury put paid to a promising soccer career. In later years, William developed an interest in hockey, and coached teams in Toronto. He died in 1969, when his sons were at college, and nearly two decades before his granddaughter, the young ice star, was born.
Sarah’s father John, a commercial lawyer in Manhattan, remembers his daughter’s first visits to the local ice rink. “The thing that was noticeable to me about Sarah,” he remarks in a still distinctive Canadian burr, “was that she would put her skates on and tie them up herself. She wouldn’t want anyone to help her; she would just go straight for the ice. The boys, they were a little older, and if we wanted to tie their skates up, they’d let us and they’d wait. Not her, she’d be gone. You wouldn’t even notice it, but she’d be out on the ice, and then when the skating was over she’d be back over, ready to go home.”
Sarah just remembers a fierce determination to keep up with her big brothers and her older sister Rebecca. “Whatever they wanted to do, I wanted to do as well,” she laughs. She started competing just a few years later, at the age of seven. “She just seemed to really enjoy it,” says her father. “I think when she saw she was pretty good at it, it just made her appreciate it even more.”
To Sarah, it’s that simple. “I just kept skating because I loved to, and I still love to skate,” she says matter-of-factly. Asked what it is that appeals to her, she pauses to think, before fumbling for an answer in that cutely awkward way common to kids her age. “I like skating because it’s a mix of athleticism and art,” she replies almost hesitantly, as if she expects someone to jump up and disagree with her. “You have to be able to do the jumps and do the spins, but you can also be balletic and interpret the music and just be yourself.”
She is mature enough, however, to recognize that her skating life won’t last forever, and she thinks she might like to study medicine or law when she’s older. “My dad’s a lawyer, that looks like fun,” she remarks. “Well,” she adds, quickly correcting herself, “it looks like a lot of work, but everything is, you know? But if you enjoy it, it’s fun.”
What is most striking about the teenager, apart from her obvious skills on the ice, is the way in which she has managed to remain, quite charmingly, herself. John and Amy Hughes are adamant that their second-oldest daughter should have as normal a life as possible, and it shows. Not for this youngster the affected sophistications of a 14-going-on-24-year-old. Her hair is cut short in a new pageboy style; her face is bare of cosmetics, save for a touch of lip gloss.
“There are girls in skating who are 12 or 13, but they’re made up to look 17 and 18,” remarks John Hughes. “You don’t want that, though — you want an 11-year-old to look like an 11-year-old — so you resist it. But there’s a tendency here if you want to really excel and distinguish yourself in this sport, you need to grow up fast and that’ s tough. It’s very hard for a parent to know what to do. Everybody’s got different circumstances and a different environment. Everybody tries their best, I’m sure.”
Asked to describe herself, Sarah shrugs. “Well, I think other people should do that,” she points out sensibly. “But I think I’m nice and I’m a friendly person, or I try to be friendly.” She has certainly managed to impress others, who flock to meet her at various competitions, and keep her mother busy answering fan mail. The first 500 pictures ordered for the devoted fans have already been sent out, and more have been ordered. Hughes is also the subject of three adoring websites maintained by fans.
A my Hughes laughs as she pores over what must amount to hundreds of pictures taken of Sarah at various competitions through the years. “Oh, right here, this is what I was looking for,” she says as she pounces victoriously on a family picture taken last year at her 50th birthday party. Eight beaming smiles shine brighter than the candles on the cake, and little wonder. It had been touch and go for a while, after Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemotherapy followed a lumpectomy, and then, as part of a nationwide study group at Cornell Medical Center, she underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Looking back on it now, Amy displays some of the humor that must have helped her through the darker days. “I had this awful wig, and Sarah was skating and before she went on, they permed my hair,” she recalls with a laugh, adding that the end result was pretty frightening. “Before she went to skate I had to go find her and say, `Look, laugh now, don’t look up and see me and get a fright.'”
A certified public accountant who dramatically scaled down her practice after her illness, Amy drops her voice a notch when she confides that her biggest worry during those dreadful months was not for her own health, but for her children. “Sarah used to come and see me every day in the hospital, but eventually I told her to stop,” she recalls, adding that her daughter’s grueling schedule was not helped by the constant trips to her mother’s sickbed. She worried too about the effect her illness was having on her daughter’s skating. “I used to think it wasn’t fair,” she recalls. “None of the other kids had to deal with a sick parent on top of everything else.” Happily, the scare is now firmly behind the Hugheses and Amy’s cancer is in remission.
Sarah’s schedule is still one that takes some juggling, however. She goes to school for about an hour and a half in the mornings (except in weeks when there are big competitions coming up) and then her mother picks her up and takes her to meet her coach, Robin Wagner. The two travel to Hackensack, New Jersey, where Sarah trains for a few hours. When she arrives back home, she spends some time doing ballet or Pilates. A tutor comes to keep her up to speed on her schoolwork and she does her homework. “And then I go to bed,” she laughs. “I need to sleep.” She may slumber like the rest of us ordinary mortals, but Sarah Hughes makes better use of her waking hours than most.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the June/July 2000 issue of Irish America.
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