- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

America's Sarah Hughes was the punch in the stomach that no one saw coming during Thursday's free skate, and the judges had no choice but to award her the gold medal.
While fans discussed America's Michelle Kwan or Russia's Irina Slutskaya as if they were the only two competing, Hughes was busy mastering a breathtaking and virtually flawless performance that allowed her to conquer both.
Now the Russian Federation is protesting Slutskaya's silver medal and claiming its country has been unfairly held back throughout these Games.
The outcome of several past events was questionable, but this was not one of them. There likely wasn't a judge on the panel who wanted to see Hughes win the gold medal.
But the two top skaters in the world didn't appear Thursday night, and it became anyone's game.
In Kwan's place was a skater who failed to ignite the audience or perform the technical program of a champion.
In Slutskaya's place was a skater who didn't try all she is capable of and looked awkward landing jumps she should have been able to do in her sleep.
Whether it was luck, fate or good timing, Hughes just happened to deliver the grandest performance of her career at exactly the right time. On Thursday night, she was the best skater in the world.
A breakdown of the top three programs:
Hughes: She landed seven triples, all of them clean. She landed two triple-triple combinations and one triple-double combination. During her layback spins, she turned her leg out and arched her back in a textbook-perfect manner. She held her spirals for an acceptable amount of time and had good extension.
Slutskaya: She landed six triples but almost fell over on her triple flip. There was a slight two-foot landing on her triple lutz. She landed two triple-double combinations but no triple-triple combinations. Her spins were magnificent, including a back Bielmann that no one else in the world can perform. Her spiral positions weren't stretched out or held long enough for the judges to appreciate them.
Kwan: She landed seven triples but fell while attempting a triple flip. She landed two triple-double combinations but no triple-triple combinations. Several of her landings looked shaky. Her spiral positions were perfect, the best of the top three. Her spins were very good but not as good as those performed by Hughes and Slutskaya.
Hughes had the best technical program of the evening. Her two difficult triple-triple combinations were executed perfectly while her opponents landed none. There was not one shaky moment in her entire performance while Kwan and Slutskaya had several.
Because the presentation aspect is subjective, it's difficult to give a clear edge to one skater. However, the reactions of the audience and skaters should be noted.
Hughes brought down the house. She finished her program slightly before her music ended because the crowd had drowned out all other sound. She looked shocked with the high quality of her skate and excited as she waited for her scores.
As the favorites, Kwan and Slutskaya drew large applause but didn't come close to generating the emotion that Hughes did.
Kwan looked disappointed and nervous as she waited for her marks. Slutskaya looked relieved and calm. Neither had the reaction of an athlete who was confident she had just sealed the deal.
Hughes' victory undoubtedly is one of the biggest upsets in figure skating history, but that is what happens in sports. It's also what keeps them exciting.
The gold medal was there for Kwan or Slutskaya to lose, and lose it they did. Their trademarks were missing, and they allowed Hughes to run away with this event.
The Russians can complain until their throats are sore and Americans will understand. They felt the same pain after watching the magnificent Kwan show Hughes how to step onto the platform's top level, where she was supposed to stand.
Irina Slutskaya didn't lose this event because the judging is fixed. Sarah Hughes won this event because it isn't.


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