New Girl in Town
03/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Sarah Hughes has always been in a hurry. Take the time, at age 3½, when she went skating at a local rink with her mother, Amy, and older brothers Matt and David. As usual, Mom first laced up Sarah's skates, then moved on to the boys. But Sarah couldn't wait for her brothers. By the time her mother noticed she was gone, the tyke was already zooming around the crowded rink near their home in Kings Point, N.Y. "I yelled, 'Get that kid! She's going to get killed!' " remembers Amy, 51. "We got her back, and I told her, 'I am never tying your skates first again.' "
That wasn't about to slow Sarah down. Soon she was lacing up her own skates—she learned how before her brothers—and launched on the very fast track that has brought her today, at 15, to the brink of skating stardom. After impressive showings at top competitions during the past half year—including a second-place finish at the nationals in January—the honor student glides into the upcoming World Championships (starting March 18 in Vancouver) as the No. 2 female skater in the U.S., right behind Olympic silver medalist Michelle Kwan. "Sarah has such warmth and grace about her when she skates," says her childhood idol Peggy Fleming Jenkins, whose elegance some are starting to see in Hughes. "She floats over the ice." Observes Dorothy Hamill: "She's very fresh and free, like a young Thoroughbred."
And like a Thoroughbred Hughes always seemed destined to excel. Though her father—a Toronto-born lawyer once drafted by the National Hockey League's Maple Leafs—would introduce all his children to skating early on, it was quickly evident to him that Sarah was extraordinary. "From the very start she had that sparkle in her eye," says John Hughes, 52, of the fourth of his six kids. "It was apparent that maybe she could be special at this." Indeed, at age 8, Hughes landed a place on a tour of France, sharing the spotlight with Olympians Surya Bonaly and Alexander Zhulin. "When I saw the Olympic skaters, I thought, 'I want to do that,' " she says. "It gave me something to aspire to."
As she rapidly rose through the skating ranks, Hughes learned to make the most of her time. While her mother, an accountant turned homemaker, drove her to and from her daily three hours of practice, "I would do my homework in the car, and I'd watch skating tapes over and over," Hughes remembers. Though her tight schedule didn't allow much time for hanging with friends or cruising makeup counters at the mall, back at the family's contemporary eight-bedroom ranch house, her parents tried "to keep as ordinary a life around here as we can," says John. "It's been really healthy for her in this environment with her brothers and sisters." (Rebecca, 23, works as a news writer at a New York City TV station; David, 19, attends Cornell; Matt, 17, plays hockey at his prep school; Emily, 12, is an up-and-coming competitive figure skater; and Taylor, 9, is "keeping her options open," says her father.)
But the family's delicate balance was upset in 1997, when Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer. For the first time, she couldn't drive Sarah, then 12, to the rink. "It was really hard," says Sarah. "I thought of her all the time." After four rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, Amy was scheduled for a bone-marrow transplant in January 1998—just before Sarah was to compete in her first junior nationals. "I was there for the end, wearing the most silly-looking wig," says Amy, who saw her daughter finish first. "It just made everything so much better," says Sarah of having her mother in the stands. "She told me that watching me skate was the best medicine she could possibly have."
Indeed, seeing her daughter compete made Amy—now in remission for almost three years—feel so much better that she took to calling her "Dr. Sarah." That's an honorific Hughes might one day want to claim for real. Meanwhile there are other tantalizing titles to think about, like those in Vancouver or, next year, at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. "Every time I see Sarah at competitions, she listens to advice and she delivers," says Jenkins. "I think there's a really good shot that she'll make that podium."
Joseph V. Tirella in New York