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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 08:29 GMT

Hughes hits the heights

By BBC Sport Online's James Cowling

At 16 years old, Sarah Hughes of the United States has become the new darling of the figure skating world after winning the 2002 Olympic gold medal in the ladies event.

So shocked that she had beaten the co-favourites in the event, Michelle Kwan also of the United States and Irina Slutskaya of Russia, Hughes fell off the bench she was sitting on.

But it was Hughes and not Kwan or Slutskaya who gave it her all.

"I've never skated that well in my whole life. I just thought if there was one place to do it, it was here," Hughes said minutes after her stunning skate.

Her victory on home turf is the first since Carol Heiss Jenkins pulled off the feat 42 years ago in 1960.

And her rise to Olympic Champion has been a very steady one.

The teenager from New York State won the US Junior National title in 1998 at the tender age of 12.

The next year she won the silver medal in the Junior Worlds and finished seventh in her first senior World competition in Helsinki, Finland.

In 2000, she moved up two spots to finish fifth in Nice, France.

Finally, in Vancouver, Canada, last year, she captured her first world medal, a bronze.

Even then, the focus for gold was still on Kwan and Slutskaya.

Hughes was not even a factor in the equation until earlier this season when she beat both women at a Grand Prix of Figure Skating competition in Canada.

Now, the rest is history.

While still a high school student in Long Island, Hughes had been planning on studying medicine and becoming a doctor.

Now, with her new found celebrity, she may have to delay her plans for a while.

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