SALT LAKE CITY -- The T-shirt is worn and faded, but to Sarah Hughes, it's sacred. For as long as she can remember, every night before a big competition, Hughes has worn it to bed. On the front is a picture of Peggy Fleming, which Hughes admits has seen better days.
Earlier this year, Fleming heard about the T-shirt at the U.S. national championships and had another one made for Hughes. The 16-year-old politely accepted, then quietly squirreled it away in a drawer.
"I wanted to stick with the old pajamas I'd been wearing," Hughes said. "It's kind of like my lucky T-shirt."
Who's to say that wasn't the difference Thursday night, when Hughes shocked the world with a performance of a lifetime? The lucky T-shirt theory seems as valid as any. Never in women's figure skating had someone entered the free skate in fourth place and soared back to win the gold medal. Hughes, however, made the impossible possible Thursday, claiming ownership to one of the biggest Olympic upsets.
"It just shows, don't make predictions in skating, because who knows?" Hughes said. "After being fourth in the short program, I thought, 'Just go for it.' I thought there was no way in the world I could win. ... But when I finished, that was just the greatest feeling ever. No matter what [the judges decided], that was my gold-medal performance."
And so in one swoop, everything changed. Three days ago, Sarah Hughes was a bubbly teen-ager looking forward to getting back to attending classes at Great Neck (N.Y.) North High School, and the now she's an international star, mugging yesterday with Katie Couric on the Today show.
"I think I slept about two hours last night," Hughes said. "I've been having so much fun since I won. I've taken my picture with tons and tons of people and am just having fun showing my medal around."
And who can blame her? In a sport of divas, Hughes has always been the girl next door, equally adept at playing class brain and homecoming queen.
"My only goal right now is to get in the high 1,500s on my SATs," Hughes said.
She doesn't have an agent, has never been schooled by a private tutor and wasn't raised from birth to believe she would be the next ice princess. The fourth of six children, Hughes grew up with just as much passion for baking cookies for her siblings as she did for landing triple Lutzes. And so when she stood on the podium with a gold medal around her neck Thursday, sharing a moment with 3 billion people, it wasn't nearly as cool as sharing it with her family 20 minutes later.
"It was so nice to see my little sisters and my brothers last night," Hughes said. "I just miss them so much because I hadn't seen my family for about a week. When I showed everyone my medal, they were like, 'Ooh, I can't believe how heavy it is.' I think they were more interested in the medal than me. I was like, 'Hey guys, what about me?' "
It might be the last time she's not the center of attention for a long time, like it or not. Though few outside the figure skating community had heard her name before she managed to catch lightning in a bottle for one magical night, Hughes didn't have success fall into her lap. She learned to skate at the age of 3 (in her back yard, not at a rink) and landed her first double Salchow at 5.
Still, it wasn't the perfect existence. Hughes' mother, Amy, received a diagnosis of breast cancer when Sarah was 12, and there was little time for the family to think about skating. Hughes would wake herself each morning at dawn to make the 1 1/2 -hour ride to Hackensack, N.J., with her coach Robin Wagner, and was focused enough to win a world junior title the same year, even while her mother underwent treatment. (Amy Hughes' cancer has been in remission for three years.)
A third-place finish at the world championships this year had many people suspecting she would contend for the bronze medal in Salt Lake City, but her real focus was on the 2006 Olympics, when she hoped to be strong enough to vie for gold.
Even in the locker room after Hughes' amazing performance --- when she became the first woman to land two triple-triple jump combinations in the Olympics -- Hughes and Wagner simply figured she had won bronze and that it would be a springboard to 2006.
Fate, however, had other ideas.
"We were really just thinking about [third place]," Wagner said. "I knew Irina [Slutskaya] and Michelle [Kwan] were both very strong competitors, and I think we both felt they'd put out fairly good performances. When an NBC cameraman told us that Sarah had won the gold, it was an absolute surprise."
It's too soon to say what comes next for Hughes. There will certainly be endorsements and White House dinners in her future, but for the moment she's just going to sit back, keep smiling her million-dollar grin, and enjoy the moment.
"I started skating because I love to skate and I started competing because I love to compete," Hughes said. "I don't have any plans to stop now. I think this is merely a beginning to my career, and it's something I'm very proud of."
Today's TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1:30-5:30 p.m., 8-11:30 p.m., midnight-12:30 a.m.; MSNBC, 10 a.m.-noon
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Figure skating: Russia's protest of free-skate judging denied by ISU. [Page 7c]