February 22, 2002

Sarah Hughes

Figure skater Sarah Hughes was at the center of an Olympic drama last night that people will be recounting for decades. Though she finished only fourth in the short program, behind first-place heir apparent Michelle Kwan, it was the 16-year-old Hughes who wore the gold medal when “The Star Spangled Banner” was played following the long program competition; Kwan wore bronze.

The expectation of NBC commentators seemed to be that Hughes was likely to remain just out of the medals, behind Kwan, Russian Irina Slutskaya, and American newcomer Sasha Cohen. To end the competition in first place, Hughes had to skate better than the front-runners, but Slutskaya also had to earn higher scores than Kwan. Only when the numbers for final skater Slutskaya were reported were the medal winners determined.

Despite the common sports rhetoric about overcoming difficulty and adversity with hard work and determination, the most delightful performances are those that, despite difficulty, are made to seem effortless. Even in their best moments, the performances of the top three women in the long program were tightly controlled, eliciting anxiety, rather than delight in spectators whenever a difficult maneuver was essayed.

And then there was Sarah. With limited prospects of earning a medal after a somewhat stiff performance in the short program, Sarah skated with gay abandon. She entered the rink with a broad, sincere smile, and she seemed to enjoy every moment she spent on the ice. After her first flawless jumps, spectators were captivated and reassured; they could relax in the expectation that more of the same was to follow. It did, and Sarah’s smile at the end bespoke both joy and amazement. Even though the leaders of the competition had not yet taken to the ice, Sarah brought down the house. If you missed that moment, you may as well have not watched any of the Olympics.

Update, 8/1/2012. Watching and writing about women’s gymnastics at the 2012 Summer Olympics, I was reminded of this post I wrote more than 10 years ago. Sarah Hughes’ performance in the long program is the greatest Olympic performance I have ever seen, and I want to share it with others. You can read about Sarah Hughes here, and you can watch her medal-winning performance below.

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