Monday, February 21, 2011

February 21, 2002: Hughes over Kwan

SALT LAKE CITY - This was supposed to be the year for Michelle Kwan. After years of dominating women's figure skating - to the tune of five World Championships and seven U.S. Championships - the only thing missing from her sparkling resumé was an Olympic gold medal. In the 1998 Olympics, after leading after the short program, Kwan ended up being caught by fellow American Tara Lipinski and just barely losing out on the gold.

Still, though, Lipinski was considered to be close to Kwan's equal, so that result wasn't so shocking. Entering the 2002 games, though, Kwan was viewed as the overwhelming favorite. Just as in 1998, Kwan was in the lead after the short program and seemed like she was in good position to win her elusive gold medal.

But along came Sarah Hughes. Though she had made a name for herself with her success on the juniors circuit, Hughes wasn't considered a strong gold medal contendor in the 2002 games. After the short program, she found herself in fourth place behind Kwan, Russia's Irina Slutskaya, and American Sasha Cohen. Hughes then skated the performance of her life, a flawless routine in the long program. Her scores put her in great position to get a medal, but she had to wait for the final three skaters to perform first.

Cohen, who had been in third, didn't impress in the long skate and fell on a jump, falling out of contention. Next to go was Slutskaya. While her performance didn't include any falls, there were several minor errors, just enough to keep her scores just barely under those of Hughes.

Last to go was Kwan, who had one skate left to try to win her elusive gold medal. She was skating wonderfully, and was nearly through her routine when disaster struck. Kwan hit the ice on one of her triple flips. Suddenly, shockingly, her gold medal run was over. And, also shockingly, the heretofore unknown Hughes was suddenly an Olympic champion.

Kwan recovered to earn bronze, her second Olympic medal, but the real story of the skating competition at the 2002 games - aside from the controversial judging throughout - was Hughes' surprising gold medal.

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