The 2002-03 Season: Sarah Hughes

Hughes' first competition since the Olympic Winter Games was the Campbell's International Figure Skating Classic in October.
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla

In many ways, Sarah Hughes had the toughest job headed into the 2002-03 season. She was a surprise Olympic champion at 16. Media and public attention was showered on her like she had never experienced. Through all that, she decided to continue competing, and she needed to find both the time and motivation to train at her usual level. Hughes also faced looming expectations when she returned to competition. With such a strong competitive spirit, it was no doubt difficult for her to return without being at the top of her game. Despite the disappointments and overwhelming scrutiny, she handled the year after the Olympics with the class of a champion. Here's a look back ...

Campbell's International Figure Skating Classic

She was back. The Olympic champion returned to competition Oct. 5 at the Campbell's Classic in Daytona Beach, Fla. After a busy summer of touring and media appearances, she had little time to prepare a new program for the season. So when she debuted her new free skate to "La Bayadere," she wasn't kidding when she said it was "very new."

In fact she had only been working on it a couple of weeks, and although the potential was strong, the newness was obvious. She landed three clean triples to finish third overall, but she had ordinals ranging from first to fifth.

At the Campbell's Classic
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla

Hughes was scheduled to compete in two ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating events - Smart Ones Skate America and Skate Canada. However, a sudden injury forced her to withdraw from both events on Oct. 17. She tore her hamstring and calf muscles and needed to take time to recuperate. She later said that the time off the ice helped her refocus on her priorities, and that she realized she wanted to be back on the ice.

"So many great things have happened in the last year, but I have a natural inclination to go to the rink every day and train," she said.

Crest Whitestrips International Figure Skating Challenge

Hughes returned to the ice in December at the Crest Whitestrips Challenge.

She once again performed to "La Bayadere," choreographed by her coach, Robin Wagner. She landed five triples to finish in second place.

"This was a scaled-down version as I haven't had much time to train due to my injury and busy schedule," she said. "I am pleased that I went out there and fought through my program, and I am still getting used to this new one."

After an injury layoff, Hughes came back with a new costume at the Crest Whitestrips International Figure Skating Challenge.
Photo by Paul Harvath
State Farm U.S. Championships

Hughes made history at the 2003 State Farm U.S. Championships in Dallas before ever stepping foot on the ice. Just by being there to compete she became the first reigning Olympic ladies champion to compete in the U.S. Championships the year following the Olympics. Still, Wagner conceded that although Hughes had made the decision to compete and was training diligently, she wasn't in peak form.

"For the last month Sarah has been fully focused on skating, which has been nice for both of us," Wagner said right before the U.S. Championships. "I'm pleased with where she's at. Is she where she has been in the past? Obviously she's not, but we're taking it one step at time."

Like previous years, Hughes' goal wasn't to necessarily win the title, but to skate her best and make the World Team. Although she competed in two U.S. Figure Skating television events, the U.S. Championships was certainly her first major competition since the Olympic Winter Games.

"I haven't competed in almost a year, so the question is how I'll feel doing it," she said. "It's been a very different year, and I want to see what it feels like to compete again."

Hughes added that she wasn't comparing the U.S. Championships to the Olympics, nor did she feel that she was defending her Olympic title. She said the allure of her Olympic win would never be taken away no matter where she placed at the U.S. Championships.

"Last year I came in third in this competition, and I'm just hoping to move up this year," she said. "The Olympic win was really special, and I'm not looking to match it because I know that probably nothing will ever match that."

Back in the thick of things Hughes faces the press after the short program at the U.S. Championships.

She wasn't the favorite, nor was she in the same form she had been in a year earlier, but she still put on a solid show. She took third in the short program with a clean but not technically perfect effort. Hughes squeaked out the landings of her triple Lutz-double toe jumps as well as the landing on the triple flip. Although her free leg never touched, it was sheer determination that kept the other leg off the ice.

"I actually forgot the steps going into the triple Lutz, so it was off going in," Hughes said. "This is the first time I've ever performed my short program. Even though I had a terrific warm-up, I felt a little wobbly. Determination got me through."

Her free skate was better. Although Michelle Kwan was clearly the star of the night, Hughes was pleased with a nice performance that helped her move up to capture the silver medal. She completed five triples in "La Bayadere," including a triple Lutz-double toe combination and a back spiral into a triple loop.

"It was a respectable skate," Hughes said. "I'm happy to move up a spot [from the 2002 U.S. Championships]. The nationals are always difficult because there's a lot of pressure to make the World Team. ... I was happy with what I did. I'm not 100 percent pleased because I can do a lot better. It's hard for me to look at the fact that I can't always be perfect, especially coming off of Salt Lake. I always want to do better."

World Championships

"It's not easy to come to the rink every single day just thinking about your training and skating when there are so many life decisions at the ripe old age of almost-18 to have to make. She's fighting through it. ... Knowing the kind of competitor she is, I think she'll put out some good programs at Worlds." - Robin Wagner

Hughes signs autographs at the World Championships.
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla

There was no doubt Hughes felt pressure heading into the World Championships in Washington, D.C. It was her first major international competition since the Olympic Winter Games. She had been juggling training with the off-ice commitments that come with being an Olympic champion, and she was in the midst of deciding which college she might attend.

But if Sarah Hughes is anything, she's a fighter, and she showed that with the courage to come back in the 2002-03 season and earn a spot on the World Team. However, her Worlds experience probably didn't go exactly as planned. She had problems throughout her qualifying performance leaving her in sixth place in the qualifying group. She landed only three clean triples and one combination (triple Lutz-double toe). She singled a planned triple Salchow and fell on her triple flip.

Nevertheless, she was pleased with her performance in the short program two days later, despite feeling strange about not competing in the final group.

"I'm used to seeing the same people, but I guess after qualifying I changed some of those faces," Hughes said. "Tonight I was pleased with how I held it together."

She fell on her triple flip in the free skate but otherwise skated well to move up to sixth place overall. Although she was pleased with her performance, she was probably more pleased that a long, difficult season was over.

"I'm relieved," she said. "The last year has been an incredible leap in my life. I'm glad it's over."

The Next Step

"Skating is probably my first true love," she said after her World Championships free skate. "I would love to go back and be able to enjoy it again."

Hughes with her parents, John and Amy, after winning the 2003 U.S. silver medal.
Photo by Paul Harvath

Hughes is now moving on to a different stage in her life. She announced in April that she would be attending Yale University this fall, and it's unclear where skating will fit into her new schedule.

Hughes was also honored with two special awards this year. In April she won the 2002 Sullivan Award, becoming the second straight figure skater to receive the honor (Kwan won in 2001). She was also named as the 2002 SportsWoman of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Since her gold medal-winning skate at the 2002 Olympics, life has been different for Hughes. She said she has seen more, done more and thought about more than she ever could have imagined. And those experiences have matured her.

"With the experiences I've had in the last year I don't think anyone can expect me to be unscathed or unchanged by it," Hughes said in January. "I feel five years older since the Olympics, but I wouldn't have changed it for the world."

Stay tuned to U.S. Figure Skating Online for more U.S. Team 200203 season recaps. We'll begin reviewing the seasons of the bronze medalists in senior men's, ladies, pairs, dance and synchronized team skating next week.

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