- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Perhaps Emily Hughes will find the aura Johnny Weir claims he misplaced the other night. But there was little glow surrounding her yesterday during her much-awaited public appearance the day after she arrived here.

Meeting the press at the Winter Olympics for the first time since she was summoned to pinch hit for the injured Michelle Kwan on the U.S. ladies’ figure skating team, the 16-year-old Hughes was perky and pleasant, wearing a smile that never wavered throughout her 20 minute press conference.

But the smile seemed a bit too forced, even for a figure skater. She seemed stilted and guarded in the way she answered questions, her verbal routine as conservatively choreographed as Weir’s skating Thursday night.

Maybe the unlikeliness of the moment was catching up to her.

Unlike her older sister, Sarah, the surprise 2002 gold medalist, Emily seemed determined to shed as little light as possible on herself and her unusual situation. She is the first alternate in U.S. figure skating history to be picked to compete in an Olympics.

Repeatedly, as if sticking to a script, Hughes mentioned how “supportive” everyone has been. Her parents have been supportive, the folks back home in Great Neck, N.Y., have been supportive and, not least of all, Sarah herself has been supportive.

For reporters trying to pan a nugget about the sisters and what might be a complex or competitive rivalry, she said, “We have a normal sister relationship. I take some clothes out of her closet. She might get a little mad. She’s so supportive of my skating. We’ve never been competitors.”

Even a well-known reporter from ESPN ran into a roadblock. When he asked about the influence of Hughes’ dad, a former outstanding hockey player, on her skating, all he got was, “He’s so supportive.”

Hughes allowed that she is very happy to be here, that she is going to wear a blue dress and that the whirlwind experience of the last week has been “pretty cool.” She said she has not spoken to Kwan, but has heard what Kwan has said about her, and it’s all very nice. “She’s been so gracious to me,” Hughes said.

Although a little pizzazz would have been welcome, Hughes is here to skate, not talk, and “you never know what will happen,” she said. She is not considered as good as her sister at a comparable point in their careers, and she finished third at the U.S. Championships behind Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner. The Russian, Irina Slutskaya, is considered the big favorite in the event.

Yet as the Olympics enter their second week, Hughes’ presence is one of the big story lines. And by all accounts, these Games could use some story lines. NBC’s ratings are threatening to fall through the ice. The nation is more captivated by the contrived “reality” of American Idol than the actual reality of Americans competing for medals and honor.

But TV would have been hard-pressed to invent this story, one that began when Kwan, the 25-year-old who is considered one of the best and most popular American skaters ever, missed the championships in St. Louis with a groin injury but was allowed a private tryout to make the Olympic team.

Kwan passed the audition and Hughes was bumped to alternate status. Back home in New York, she resumed going to high school, fretted over her SATs and was setting her sights on the World Championships next month.

Now she is here, ready to skate before the world.

Kwan was scheduled for her third Olympics but was looking for her first gold medal. She won a silver in 1998 and a bronze in 2002, both times as the favorite, and this would be her final shot.

But a long plane ride here and four hours in the cold during the opening ceremony caused the injury to worsen, and Kwan fell during her first practice. Afterward, she expressed doubts about being able to continue. She withdrew the next day and the call went out to Hughes.

She reportedly was dining with her family at a local Japanese restaurant last weekend, eating a “Sarahgold Roll” named for her sister, when her dad’s cell phone rang with the news.

“We were told to keep it a secret,” Hughes said on Sunday. “It was hard not to jump up and down, so we pretty much went right home so we could jump up and down.”

A big performance by the other U.S. women, or at least one of them, would be more than welcome to NBC and the nation, especially in light of Weir’s Thursday night flame-out. Weir, whose outlandish costumes and quotes would end up exceeding his performance, fell from second place to fifth.

Afterward, he gave another bravura performance for the microphones and notebooks, explaining how missing the bus to the arena caused him to not feel his “inner peace” and his “aura,” and how he felt “black inside.”

Now Weir has been relegated to a quirky footnote as the spotlight falls on the women, with Hughes squarely in it.

“Just making it here is such an accomplishment for me,” she said. “I don’t have expectations. I’ll just go out and attack everything and skate my best.”

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