Person of the Week: Sarah Hughes

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Golden Girl: Hughes

Four years ago in Nagano, young Tara Lipinski "pulled a Tara," leaping over Michelle Kwan without nicking her to take the gold medal. In figure skating circles that immediately became known as pulling a Tara because, under the rules of skate scoring — rules so arcane and cryptic and convoluted (and, as we know, so easily abused) — no one is allowed to pass anyone in the rankings unless the pre-disposed judges say they can. Yet Tara did just that, turning in a long program performance so astonishing that the judges could not deny her superiority. And so they moved her from second to first over the established favorite, Kwan.

Coming into Salt Lake City, no skater since Lipinski had done the rough equivalent of that sensational accomplishment. There had been modest surprises — tantamount to scandals in the skating world — but that was it.

Elsewhere, of course, there had been all manner of sporting upset: D'backs over Yanks, Pats over Rams, Tiger chased in the first round of match play. It got me thinking. Yes, yes, sure: Judged sports are, by their nature, subjective. But isn't it awful that a skater can't come from behind and surge to glory? That's the very quintessence of athletic achievement. The comeback. The pass or dunk or kick with .01 on the clock.

So yesterday morning I started thinking about figure skating, where, at the time, Kwan, the Russian Irina Slutskaya, American Sasha Cohen and Hughes stood one through four. Too bad, I mused, that the kids can't jump up in the standings if they really crank one tonight. Too bad.

Why can't that happen in figure skating? I put the question to my colleague, Alice Park, as we sat at the Delta Center waiting for the final group to skate. "Well," she explained patiently, "it's because if Hughes skates great and Cohen's behind her then she has to beat Kwan. But if she does that, then Slutskaya has to beat Kwan for Hughes to win, because if Slutskaya is second to Kwan tonight then the short program is brought to bear and so Hughes, even though she beat Kwan, would finish second to Kwan and Slutskaya, who lost to Kwan, would finish behind Hughes and. . ."

"Okay," I said. "I get it. Want a beer before Sarah skates?"

I was back with my Squatter's amber by the time Sarah skated. It was a magnificent performance, what with a couple of triple-triples and all manner of elegance and charm. It was exciting. It was thrilling. It was altogether sensational.

"Has she got a chance?" I asked Alice, who wrote the prescient TIME cover story on Hughes before the games.

"Not really," she said, "because if Michelle beats Irina then she wins but if Irina beats her and Sarah beats Sasha and . . . "

"Okay, okay," I said.

So Sasha had an off night and slipped behind Sarah, fair enough. Then Kwan came a-cropper. Now there was one left, or so I figured.

I figured wrongly. Figure-skate judging had learned nothing in the last week and two judges had placed Hughes's performance this evening below both Kwan's and Cohen's. Incomprehensible. Outrageous! Moreover, the entire Russian Olympic team was threatening to pull out of the Games this very evening. They'd been hard done because some cross-country skier had tested positive and Wednesday's hockey game was called too closely and there was still that thing with the Canadian pairs and, well, they were in fifth place overall and someone had to answer to Putin. (Or so speculated a Russian journalist at the press conference where Russia aired its many grievances. The journo was hooted down for treason by a team official.)

Did Russia make its threat to go home at this precise moment in order to influence judges for Slutskaya? Of course it did! No question. So pressures bearing upon the ultimate decision in ladies figure skating included not only hidebound judging traditions and lingering Cold War resentment but, also, Russia's heretofore lousy performance at this Olympics.

So how was justice done? It wasn't, not really. Believe it or not, four judges placed Slutskaya's extremely mediocre performance Number One for the night. Five gave that honor to Hughes's stellar one, thank goodness. Slutskaya did, thus, beat Kwan, which allowed Hughes to get her due. It was a very, very, very, very near thing. It was quite close to crummy. We very nearly had Salt Lake's Skategate II.

"She pulled a Tara," said Alice as the scores were announced.

We both thought that over a while, then looked at the young girl on the ice who had done the magnificent thing herself.

"She pulled a Sarah."