Hughes sisters' warm bond strengthened by time on ice


TURIN, Italy -- She's her inspiration, her role model, her soft shoulder in sad moments, her dry hanky in happy moments.

Basically, Sarah Hughes is Emily's sister.

And sisters are always there for each other.

It's not usually this smooth with kid combinations. For example, brother and brother have this understanding: The oldest will pick on the youngest, starting at birth. The poor little guy will get his ear flicked, or experience the annoyance of a well-applied noogie, or always feel pressure to catch his big brother's baseball throw, which always comes too hard.

Brother and sister? They sometimes can be as compatible as dog and cat. They share a strong desire to dominate the bathroom in the morning, use the telephone during the day and own the remote control at night. Fights are common, referees are required.

But sister and sister? That is true and everlasting bliss.

That's what Sarah and Emily have, a bond strengthened by gender, by a remarkable facial resemblance, by closeness in age, by a love of shopping and manicures. And of course, by figure skating. That last part has allowed Sarah and Emily to share the unique status of being Olympians. It doesn't get any better than the older sister winning the gold medal in Salt Lake City and, four years later, the younger sister using that as motivation to reach Turin.

"Emily is going over to enjoy the competition and take it in," said Sarah, 20. "This is all a bonus for her. No one works harder than she does. She really wanted to be part of this team and she earned it. I am really just so proud of her. It is terrific."

On a certain satisfaction level, this will mean almost as much to Sarah as it does to Emily. They come from a tight family of six kids, all born and raised on ice, all nurtured wonderfully in Kings Point, N.Y., by Amy and John Hughes, the Canadian who handed his love of skating down to his children. Sarah and Emily, separated by three years, are the fourth and fifth youngest (Taylor's the baby of the bunch). While the boys played hockey, the sisters did what girls do.

Sarah and Emily spent plenty of time twirling together when they first caught the skating bug, back in grade school. That's where the bond took hold. Amy Hughes drove the sisters to the rink and to school. As time went by, the older Sarah's skating became much sharper, her jumps higher, her landings firmer. Clearly, she had the look. She had the making of a champion.

She also had something else: The full support of Emily.

There was no sibling rivalry, not really; just love and admiration from one to another. Which is what you'd expect, actually. They're sisters.

"Emily really is how she comes across: happy, hard working, friendly, likable, just a good all-around kid," Sarah said. "She is a team player on and off the ice."

Sarah's emergence as a world-class skater effectively ended their ice time together. Sarah had her own coach, made exhausting trips from Long Island to New Jersey to train, and traveled the world. You know what happened next. She went to Salt Lake with a medal shot, and then, with a breathless performance that put a watermelon in everyone's throat, seized the gold from the favorites. No one cheered harder than Emily. She was also there for Sarah when the post-Olympic crush arrived on cue.

"Whenever I would complain about something," Sarah said, "she would roll her eyes, like 'C'mon Sarah, just sign this or just let mom take 50 more pictures.' She still tries to make me look bad by doing whatever my mom asks."

In a twist, Emily now spends more time on skates than Sarah, who dedicated herself to the real family tradition -- education -- after the 2002 Games and went to Yale, where she's a sophomore. Determined to reach her peak as a skater, Emily pushed herself harder and, in the last year, made strides. She went from placing sixth in the 2005 nationals to third this year, helped greatly by a strong short program. That, along with her last name, wasn't enough to convince the skating federation to take her over Michelle Kwan, who got the nod on reputation and the strength of a private skate-off. That was tough on Sarah, maybe more than Emily.

"You know," Sarah said, "it is what it is. The circumstances were very unusual and everyone in figure skating has a lot of respect for Michelle. How could you not? In a sense it was very hard, but Emily understood and handled the whole situation with grace and maturity. One of the hardest things for her was finding out the alternate didn't walk in the Opening Ceremonies. She was pretty broken-hearted over that."

Emily comes to Turin facing tougher odds of medaling than Sarah did in Salt Lake. Sarah had arrived. Emily's still rising. And the competition is steep. She'll be going against Irina Slutskaya and Sasha Cohen and the nimble Japanese girls. But at least she'll be in Turin. Whether or not her medal chances are realistic, she'll get a chance and make the most of it.

"Even though she clearly is competitive, she is also very rational," Sarah said. "This has and will help her through victory and defeat."

Anyway, the skater who'll matter most to Emily at the Turin Olympics will sit in the stands, among 17 family and friends, slightly weary from a bout with mono but expected to muster the strength to empty her lungs. Sarah will be there for Emily, just as Emily was there in Salt Lake for Sarah.

That's what sisters do.

Shaun Powell writes for Newsday.

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