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From the archive: Olympian Sarah Hughes' family keeps her grounded

Olympic gold medal winner Sarah Hughes, right, rides

Olympic gold medal winner Sarah Hughes, right, rides with her skating coach Robin Wagner in a victory parade on March 10, 2002 in Great Neck. Credit: Newsday / Michael E. Ach

On Feb. 21, 2002, Sarah Hughes, of Kings Point, won the gold medal in women's figure skating at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Hughes, who was born on May 2, 1985, celebrated her 31st birthday earlier this week.  She was 16 years old when she traveled to the Olympics, and had the support of her large family, who were all in attendance at the games to see her compete. Former Newsday Reporter John Jeansonne profiled the entire Hughes family just more than a week before Sarah won her gold medal. A version of this story was originally published in Newsday on Feb. 11, 2002.

As long as we're talking about the apple, we should consider the tree. Sarah Hughes' family.

Long Island's 16-year-old Hughes will step into the klieg lights of the Salt Lake City Winter Games completely alone in about a week. Only she will control the athletic jumps, spins and precise curlicues that could land her a medal in the most widely viewed of any Olympic sport.

But no endeavor is truly solitary, and behind Hughes stands a team of teachers, advisers and supporters. There is her skating coach, of course: Robin Wagner, who also is her choreographer. There are experts to craft her music, design and create her dresses, cut her hair. There are artisans to custom-build her skate boots, specially sharpen her blades; exercise therapists to condition her every muscle and nerve. There are tutors to keep her up to speed on the weeks of classroom work sacrificed for full-time practice sessions and travel. 

But before all that, there is family, which is where everyone begins, whether they become Olympians or not. In Hughes' case, her path toward a leading role in the slightly unreal world of figure skating is atypical, in that family and home have not been put in her rearview mirror on the way to celebrity. Unlike so many teenage girls pursuing Olympic dreams -- champions like  Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinksi -- Hughes' daily routine regularly ends among what her father calls the "chaos of people coming and going and doing their own thing all the time, and she had to fit in."

Those people include Sarah's parents, John and Amy, both 52; older sister, Rebecca, 24, and brothers David, 20, and Matt, 18; and younger sisters Emily, 13, and Taylor, 10. The "chaos" ranges from helping with household chores and baking cupcakes with her younger sisters to joking around with her brothers and pitching in while Amy battled breast cancer four years ago. It all has been played out at the Hughes house in Kings Point.

"There was a TV piece during the national championships," said Bernard Kaplan, principal of Great Neck North High School, where Sarah is lately a junior-in-absentia, "and John Hughes said something like, 'We can't influence Sarah's skating. That's way beyond us. But we can influence the kind of person she is.' That kind of parenting is unusual."

The plan, all along, was that Sarah would continue to live at home, and continue to attend public school for as many hours a day as her training and traveling schedule would allow, for as long at it would allow. And it is among family that Sarah "has definitely kept her feet on the ground," said older sister, Rebecca. "I'm not going to say she's a normal kid, and if you've seen our family, you've seen we're not the average American family. We're all very busy. We run around. But when all of us are home, Sarah is just one of us, and that's a rare thing for an elite athlete. We're her friends. We're that many more people she can be close to."

All of them will be in Salt Lake City next week for Sarah's competition -- Tuesday night in the women's short program and Thursday night in the long-program final. All except Rebecca -- she was on her honeymoon at the time -- trekked to Los Angeles for last month's U.S. National Championships, where Sarah's third-place finish qualified her for the Olympics.

According to Sarah, her family takes all the attention she gets in stride. "My brothers are never jealous," she said. "They're happy to be with me when I'm around all these women."

Besides, this is her thing; they do theirs, and everybody is happy. "My brothers always wanted to skate at the same time I did when I was a little kid, but I wanted to be on the ice by myself," Sarah said. "They'd be playing hockey and I was afraid, so I'd talk them into playing without a puck. . . My mom bought me a pair of hockey skates at one point, but I don't think I ever played. They have penalties in hockey. What would they do that was so bad to have penalties? And my mom had my older brother figure skating when he was about 5. I've seen it on a video. Now he's 5-10, 210, a huge guy. But he was very small then and he would spin. Then my dad gave him a hockey stick."

The Hughes family gives the distinct impression of a jocular, content troupe, one for all and all for one, yet with a mix of personalities, nationalities -- even religions. John, a Protestant from suburban Toronto, married Amy, a Jew from Rosyln Heights, in 1976. And this past summer, Rebecca married News 12 Long Island news producer Doug Parker.

"He's Catholic," Amy said. "That makes three."

It sounds like a Hughes theme: The more the merrier. When John Hughes was growing up in Canada, the son of an Irish immigrant who worked in construction, his mother participated in home foster care for babies awaiting adoption. So, aside from his older brother, "There always was a baby around," John said. "Eighteen kids passed through, so we always had diapers in the house. And then I got married and we had six kids, and for 16 years there always were diapers in our house."

His father had played professional soccer in Ireland during the 1930s -- maybe that's how deep Sarah's athletic roots go -- though, at what level, John isn't sure. But John's own ice hockey skills were good enough that he wound up at Cornell University with the likes of future Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden. In John's three years of varsity participation, Cornell lost a total of four games, and he was captain of the unbeaten 1970 team that won the national title the year after Dryden graduated.

Already a year toward his master's in business administration and having been admitted to Cornell Law, John's other option at the time was the NHL, except the Toronto Maple Leafs made him their final roster cut before the 1970-71 season. "I'll never understand why they kept the other guy," he said with a little grin -- the other guy being future Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler.

At Cornell during his senior year, John had met Amy Pastarnack, daughter of a cosmetics and clothing exporter-importer from Long Island -- perhaps Sarah's interest in just the right skating duds goes back that far -- and a graduate of Wheatley High. They have been a couple ever since, with Amy going to business graduate school while John finished law school. When John was recruited by Eugene Nickerson's New York City law firm, Amy took a job as CPA for Price-Waterhouse in Boston.

"The shuttle cost $19.50 then," John said, easy for both of them to remember because that's what they spent every weekend for her to fly to New York for almost three years. In the meantime, another Hughes family theme already was at work: Optimism.

"I really believe," John said, "that things turn out for the better in life." It happens that, during his final semester of law school, John became aware that noncitizens were barred from admission to the bar in the United States. "But I liked it at Cornell Law," he said, so he went contentedly on, later learning that a citizen of the Netherlands, a woman named Fre Le Poole Griffiths, who had gotten her law degree at Yale and married an American, had brought legal action challenging the rule.

Griffiths' case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where she won. "Guess who," John Hughes asked, "was the first non-U.S. citizen to be admitted to the bar in New York State?" He was, of course.

Rebecca was born while John and Amy were living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not far from where Rebecca and her husband currently reside. It was in 1981 that the young family, with second child, David, a year old, moved to the rambling house in Kings Point, where the den walls and shelves now are covered with family photographs, illustrating the kids' various endeavors and dispositions.

"All different," Amy said of her children. "Different needs, different interests." One photo shows Matt, waiting at Kennedy Airport for Sarah to return from the 1999 world championships in Helsinki -- "figuring the whole women's team would be on the same flight," John said -- wearing a large sign on his chest announcing: "I am Sarah's brother."

It is Matt who has emerged as the family humorist, the one with the "perfect timing to say funny things," according to Rebecca, the same boy who, doctors told his parents, "would never speak, would never read," John said. Born two months premature and weighing less than 2 pounds, he was so tiny that his grandmother "noticed that meat on the scales at the deli weighed more than him," Amy said. Matt was hooked up to a tracheotomy tube for his first 18 months.

"He finally said, 'More cake,' " Amy said. "And we thought, 'Albert Einstein! "More cake." ' He was probably 3."

"Then he called everything 'apple,' " David said.

Now, he does stand-up comedy. Virtually nonstop. But Matt's survival still was very much in doubt, John said, when Amy convinced him they should have another baby.

They named her Sarah because, in the usual discussions about names, "someone mentioned that 'Sarah Hughes' is a famous name already -- the judge that swore in Lyndon Johnson on the airplane," John said. Sarah Hughes, the federal judge from Texas who had been pictured with LBJ in the surreal hours after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, had died on April 23, 1985, so her name was back in the news nine days before Sarah Hughes of Kings Point was born on May 2, 1985.

By then, skating already was a regular activity in the Hughes family. Pickup hockey in the cold outdoors being among John's fondest childhood memories, he had built a rink behind the family home so that his own children would have a taste of that kind of fun, and often would unwind from a day of lawyering by quietly skating late at night.

John still finds time for ice hockey competition twice a week at the Parkwood rink, across from Great Neck North Middle School, where Sarah first skated as a tot. The only difference now is that "one group I play with, on Friday nights, is all younger guys, and they all call me 'Mr. Hughes,' which I don't like very much."

Anyway, the backyard rink came "long before any thoughts of a serious figure skater in the family," he said. "There were probably more snowball fights on that rink than any serious skating."

"It wasn't a great rink," as far as Sarah can remember. "The ice was bumpy. We took our family Christmas picture on it once, so there are a lot of fond memories. There was some wiring underneath and, for a little bit, we had a Zamboni. But it broke down and my dad stayed up all night hosing the ice down. I was about 6 then" -- and already a three-year veteran of skating.

Sarah, like her brothers, had followed Rebecca's lead, Rebecca having started with skating when she was 6, competing at various rinks around Long Island and even traveling once to Lake Placid. Then David, starting at 5, "was the one who got us going to the rink regularly," John said.

David's first hockey team was the Bryan Trottier Skating Academy Bears in Port Washington. Almost immediately, little Matt, his eyeglasses the only obvious reminder of his early physical struggles, tagged gamely along.

At 6, "I was the youngest guy on the Bears," Matt said. "I wore No. 99. They called me 'The Secret Weapon.' "

Rebecca stayed with the sport until she was 15, when her passion turned to writing, and she became editor on the Great Neck North High School newspaper. Meanwhile, she dabbled in ice dancing and later taught skating, even when she went off to Harvard to study government. After a year as an associate producer at Long Island's News 12, taking time to produce an award-winning feature on Sarah before working another year as writer and copy editor at WPIX-TV, Rebecca now is seeking her law degree at Columbia University with an eye toward becoming a legal reporter.

She was only 12 when she penned a poem in praise of little sister Sarah, an ode that John saw as much a demonstration of Rebecca's writing skills as Sarah's skating ability.

"I think, for me, it was hard to have a little sister who was so good," Rebecca said, "especially when you're 12 or 13 years old. By the time she was 7, she was already amazing. You could already tell how athletic she was. And she just loved it."

David followed his hockey to St. Mary's High in Manhasset, which he led to a pair of state championships. Then to a season playing Junior A -- the top amateur rank in the sport -- with the Chicago Freeze, even as Cornell was recruiting him. Once at Cornell, where he now is a sophomore studying business and finance, David left the hockey team and walked onto the varsity football team, preferring to play on the school's club hockey team.

On that level, he occasionally played opposite brother Matt, a freshman on the club team at crosstown Ithaca College, this past season. "And together," Matt said, "we paint the town red." Matt had gone to high school at Portledge in Locust Valley, his family seeking smaller classes for him, and added tennis and golf to his list of activities.

And, in answer to "Why Ithaca?," where his interests are film and communications, Matt offers the precisely timed explanation: "Well . . . when I didn't get into Harvard. . . . One thing they asked was what book I read in the last six months and I thought, 'Uh-oh.' "

Sarah, by comparison, "is more complex, more like I am," Rebecca said. "We worry about things more than we seem to. A little neurotic, but not in a bad sense." For instance, "I love to perform," Sarah said. "I love to be onstage and have people watch me skate. I enjoy being the center of attention. Although, sometimes, it's not so good."

"This is a child," said Wagner, Sarah's coach, "who wants results."

The Hughes child who followed Sarah, Emily, also went into skating. But if there are comparisons to Sarah's accomplishments on the ice, they are neither obvious nor troublesome. Emily this year qualified for the junior national championships, where she finished 11th.

"It's amazing to me how Emily handles that, and I think that's my father's influence," Rebecca said. "My mother and father always are running around for Sarah, but my mother and father always are running around for all of us. Sarah's just one of six, and I think that makes it more a normal thing." Emily -- "the perfect kid," Rebecca said, "the most obedient kid, very neat and organized and almost always happy" -- also has math, English and violin to hold her interest.

And then there's Taylor -- "A lot like me," Rebecca said. "She loves to read. She can beat me at Scrabble and she loves puzzles and games."

And all of them clearly see Sarah's arrival at the Olympics as a point of joy and pride. "I've been bragging about Sarah for years," Rebecca said. "She's my friend, and the older I get, the more I realize it."

Yet Sarah's big event, so thoroughly public, hardly is the first time they have pulled together. When Amy's breast cancer was diagnosed in 1997, John proved again that "he is the rock," Amy said. "He is the anchor of this ship."

Rebecca assumed some of the mothering role, "especially for Emily and Taylor," she said. "I flew home from school about every weekend." There was that Boston-New York shuttle again, no longer $19.50. That was when Sarah, 12 at the time, began to get to know her older sister better, and the idea of going to Harvard or Columbia, her sister's two schools, has begun to appeal to Sarah as she approaches her senior year of high school.

And it was David, Amy said, "who gave me his [blood] platelets when I was in the hospital. We had to get a court order to do it because he was so young [then 16]."

"That was hard, and a hard age for Sarah," Rebecca said, "because she was old enough to understand."

Still, the Hugheses had all those numbers on their side, all that optimism, all those religions. And, when Amy's illness was at its worst, Sarah had her first major skating breakthrough, winning the U.S. junior national championship, and John kidded that such good medicine for Amy caused them to call her "Dr. Sarah" for a while.

Sarah, in fact, said she is thinking she might study medicine in college.

"What's really been good with all our kids," John said, "is that they all seem to have found something they're very happy to do, that they have an enthusiasm for something and they're not just sitting around, which is a parent's worst nightmare."

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