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Where does Hughes go from here?

OPINION -

March 07, 2002|BY DAN KAUFFMAN

Dear Sarah Hughes,

Has it sunk in yet? I'm guessing, no. I'm guessing you're still a little wide-eyed that, yes, that's you on the Wheaties box. That was you on The Today Show. An appearance at the Grammys? Check. Ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange? Check.

Heck, you're probably still wide-eyed that it was you on the ice that fateful evening almost two weeks ago, when you became the first and only woman figure skater ever to complete two triple-triple jump combinations in one Olympic long program.

If anyone ever earned the right to be a little wide-eyed, it's you. Far be it for anyone to take that right away from you. So revel in your newfound fame until your eyes adjust.

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Then walk away.

Rick Reilly - the noted Sports Illustrated columnist - has it wrong. You didn't save figure skating, you merely disguised its problems for four glorious minutes. The same corrupt practices that turned the pairs competition into a World Wrestling Federation-style storyline and held your sport hostage in the week leading up to the women's competition remain unchecked today. Your sport's main suggestion for cleaning things up - adding more judges - is a joke.

Nor did you save the Olympics, a silly notion in the first place. Remember how Salt Lake City won the 2002 Games? The truth is, bribes, payoffs and scandals are as much a part of the Olympics today as world-class athletes such as yourself. The Olympic movement, as it stands, is no more pristine than Larry Flynt.

Which explains in part why you stand out. You're 16. You were largely unknown before the Games. Chances are, you could have walked around your hometown in New York without being noticed. There's a legitimate innocence about you, revealed in your face seconds after you stunned the world. You're everything the Olympics, as a whole, are not.

You're on top of the figure skating world. You're an Olympic gold medalist, and you won it in your home country. You're the newest role model for millions of little girls.

The sad reality is, there's nowhere to go but down.

Now, the world knows who you are. You're the newest celebrity, and with the change in status comes increased recognition and media scrutiny, whether you want it or not. Now, there are people just waiting for you to get a speeding ticket so they can claim you're not so innocent, after all.

And God forbid you get picked up for an alcohol- or drug-related offense.

It's not fair, is it? Hundreds of people do things they regret, but their mishaps don't make the front page of the sports section. Yours will. The second something happens to you, the collective consciousness of America will be there to ridicule you. That's life in the spotlight.

But is that the life for you?

According to Reilly, you're a very bright young woman. You're gunning for 1500 on the SATs, and you have aspirations to become a doctor. If what I've read about you is correct, your feet are firmly planted on the ground.

You've done everything you could ever have dreamed about doing in figure skating. Now do everything you've dreamed about doing with the rest of your life.

Enjoy the moment, Sarah. Enjoy the appearances on TV, the Wheaties box and the other endorsements you choose to do.

Then move on, and don't look back.

Dan Kauffman is a staff writer for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2311, or by e-mail at kauffman@herald-mail.com

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