- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

If Sarah Hughes wants an excuse for her disastrous performance this week, she has plenty of choices.

Hughes sat out most of this season with a leg injury and participated in just one event before the ongoing World Figure Skating Championships at MCI Center. Her schedule has been jam-packed since she won Olympic gold at the Salt Lake City Games a victory she hadn't anticipated.

She was accepted at Harvard and must decide soon whether she wants to become a doctor or postpone her education and continue with competitive skating, which could lead to a second trip to the Olympics in Italy in 2006.

"This last year has been so many things for me," Hughes said Wednesday after her error-filled performance in the qualifying round. "To come here is actually a more comforting atmosphere."

But Hughes isn't the type of competitor who seeks to pin blame. She rather would come up with a great performance and a huge victory to answer critics when they imply she won't deliver.

Other skaters should be worried when Hughes is the underdog.

"It's OK. It's one program," she said Wednesday. "I still have two more to go. I'm a strong competitor. I have a strong mind."

However, this time the damage may be too great for her to overcome. In the qualifying round, Hughes performed a free skate that was likely the worst of her career.

Gone was the magic from Salt Lake City, where she delivered the performance of a lifetime and scored one of the biggest upsets in figure skating history by beating veterans Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya. This week Hughes' evil twin showed up she stumbled through her program by falling once and popping two triples into singles.

At the end of the program, Hughes was in tears. At the end of the day, she was sixth in her qualifying group. She hasn't been placed that low since she was an up-and-coming skater with braces and a ponytail.

The two triple-triple combinations Hughes had in Salt Lake City were performed this week by Russian Elena Sokolova, who suddenly looks like a big threat to stand on the podium. Americans Kwan and Sasha Cohen also looked strong.

Meanwhile, Hughes is dangerously close to going home without a medal and the gold is virtually hopeless.

Every Olympic champion in the ladies' event since 1924 has retired or medaled in the next world championships she entered. And almost all of those medals have been gold.

Hughes said she doesn't feel like she has anything to prove, but without a national or world title, her Salt Lake City program looks more like a fluke.

"There's always a certain pressure on myself to improve," she said before she arrived in the District.

Hughes took a long pause, then continued, "The Olympics was one event, and it was a great experience for me, and I certainly felt that … I repaid all the people who invested in me.

"It's now more that whatever I do is just something extra."

Something extra could be a Ph.D. In addition to Harvard, Hughes is waiting to hear from Columbia, Yale and Princeton.

"I've always been interested in having a well-rounded life. Of course I have an interest in going away and living in a dorm for a little while," Hughes said. "I'll just see where I want to go after the world championships."

Winning a gold medal this week would make that decision hard. But leaving with nothing could make it even tougher.

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