The high-pitched buoyancy Sarah Hughes displayed in the months after winning the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating last year has been replaced by long pauses, exasperated sighs and sinking sentences. The whirlwind months that followed her title are behind her, the biggest event of the skating season is upon her, and Hughes is, quite simply, not ready.
College acceptance letters, appealing prospects and mixed feelings about competitive skating have buffeted and bent her psyche. An overuse injury interrupted her season and training, making her feel like she is just getting started when she should be gliding into top form. Arguably the most admired skater in the world at the moment, Hughes admits being neither completely focused nor fully prepared for the World Figure Skating Championships March 24-30 at MCI Center.
"As an athlete, I'm always looking to achieve to the best of my ability," Hughes said in a telephone interview after a recent practice in New York. "But the situation I'm in now, the best of my ability is not really my full potential. . . . I'm not really happy going into worlds feeling like this."
It's been a curiously tough year for Hughes. At first, she blissfully immersed herself in the experiences and exposure her gold medal brought. But the torment of decision-making eventually replaced the youthful joy of discovery. A young woman whose life had revolved largely around skating through her teen years began to realize she was losing the road map she had always thoughtlessly and happily traced with her skates. As she approaches her graduation from Great Neck North High on Long Island, she finds that the opportunities have brought wrenching questions. What should she do with her life? Who can tell her?
Hughes has been accepted to Harvard and could be admitted to Princeton, Yale and Columbia after April 1. She is being pursued by the highly regarded Stars on Ice tour. She has the distinction of being the first women's figure skating gold medalist not to turn pro immediately after the Olympics since Katerina Witt in 1988 and she remains, her state of mind aside, a favorite to win a medal at the world championships. The 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, beckon.
"I have so many alluring opportunities," Hughes said. "There are so many things I want to do, it's painful to try to think about where I see myself. Before, I saw only the Olympics in front of me and I would do anything I could to make the Olympic team. Now that the Olympics are over, do I want to keep competing or do I want to reach society in a different way?
"The sooner I decide, the better. It's driving me crazy."
One thing is certain: Hughes will not do next year what she did this season, a half-hearted juggling act she described as "incredibly difficult." An injury to a ligament in the back of her knee caused her to miss the Grand Prix season. Though she continued training while taking an assortment of Advanced Placement classes, the intensity was lacking. Her first event of the skating season was the U.S. championships in January, where she took the bronze, finishing behind Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen.
She enters this event hoping to medal but expecting nothing. She has cut down the difficulty in her long program slightly, eliminating one of her two triple-triple combinations.
"If she wants to continue to compete, it has to be a full effort, a full season, not a half-effort like this season," Coach Robin Wagner said. "We've always really thrived on training. Performing is wonderful, but great moments come through breakthroughs in training -- sweat and tears. When you don't have many, many months behind you, it's frustrating. It's been frustrating for both of us."
The daughter of a lawyer and cancer survivor who calls National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice a role model, Hughes confesses that she can imagine life without high-intensity competitive skating. Her older sister went to Harvard and now attends Columbia Law School; her younger sister -- also a talented skater -- already has published a book. But though new peaks attract her interest, Hughes isn't sure she wants to step off this particular one just yet. How would she ever get back on? She isn't, of course, sure about anything.
Should she defer an acceptance to college for a year or two and resume her competitive career with renewed attention? Or, perhaps, should she attend a local school -- Columbia is a favorite -- and attempt to take classes while continuing to train with Wagner? ("If I were going to continue to compete for the next couple of years, it's important to stay with my coach," she said.)
Should she go away to school and experience true dorm and collegiate life -- which she really wants to do -- and join the Stars on Ice tour as an Olympic-eligible skater, thereby keeping a foot in elite skating without subjecting herself to the rigors of Olympic-eligible competition? ("Of course, it's something I would consider doing," she said. "They do have the current Olympic champion [Alexei Yagudin] on that show. It's a very high level of skating. It would be a great atmosphere for someone interested in keeping their skill level up, while not being under the pressure of competing all the time.")
Or, perhaps, should she put skating aside for a year or two and give the full college experience a try?
"I realize I'm very lucky to have these options," Hughes said. "In another sense, it's more difficult. I'm interested in so many things. It's very hard to choose one thing. I couldn't have anticipated the year I've had. I've had some ups and a lot of downs. I'm 17 years old. For a lot of teenagers, it's a time to choose."
Wagner, Hughes's longtime coach, won't uproot her own life to move with Hughes to an out-of-town campus, but she says she wouldn't dare tell her star pupil what to do.
"I'm advising her to do what her heart tells her," Wagner said. "That's it. That's my only advice. . . . All of the options are wonderful."