The first time figure skater Sarah Hughes came face-to-face with Michelle Kwan, they weren't on the ice, but they might have been, for all the care that went into choreographing the meeting, at least on Hughes' part. Hughes had learned that Kwan, her idol, was competing near Hughes' home on New York's Long Island and would be dining at a local restaurant. Hughes couldn't let the opportunity pass and persuaded her older brothers and sister to eat with her at the same establishment. "I just wanted to go and eat at the same restaurant as Michelle, at the same time she did," she says.
A mere four-year Olympic cycle later, Hughes is still maneuvering for meetings with Kwan, but now it's on the medals podium. As part of the deeply talented U.S. women's figure-skating team heading to Salt Lake City, Hughes will be facing off with Kwan and Sasha Cohen for Olympic gold in what promises to be the most intense battle of the blades in a decade. The three make up the strongest U.S. contingent since Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding last stirred hope for a medals sweep in 1992. Yamaguchi and Kerrigan delivered, winning gold and bronze, respectively, while Harding finished fourth. "With all the girls skating so well and peaking at the right time, it certainly makes sense to talk about sweeping again this year," says Yamaguchi.
This being figure skating, don't count on a team effort to knock off the competition, which this year comes mainly from Russia. You can resurface a rink with the frostiness that elite skaters reserve for one another. Hughes, 16, makes it clear that despite Kwan's once revered status, the six-time national champ is "just another competitor" now. The equally aggressive Cohen, 17, announced her intention to risk everything by trying to become the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.
Kwan added another chapter to her epic eight-year quest for Olympic gold when she shed her longtime coach Frank Carroll last winter. She wobbled badly at first, but after winning the national championships in Los Angeles four weeks ago, she is still the one to beat. Cohen edged Hughes for second in that event, surprising the crowd with a polished, sophisticated performance, confirming that this will be a three-way race.
If Kwan is the ice legend of her time and Cohen is the mesmerizing but mercurial rising star, then Hughes is the well-disciplined champion in training. Her ascent to Olympic contender in the past three years couldn't have been more methodical if it had been planned; each year she has bettered her rankings at both the national and the world championships. She covers the rink with more speed than Kwan and spins and jumps with more explosive energy. While Cohen does have the edge over Hughes in emotive prowess, Hughes is the more consistent skater.
And although she has yet to obtain a driver's license, the New Yorker has proved herself a deft navigator of the skating circuit. She is a crafty competitor with enough international experience to know--and deliver--what the judges like to see. She bested both Kwan and Russian star Irina Slutskaya at an international competition in November, becoming the first U.S. skater to beat Kwan since Tara Lipinski did it at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.