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Hughes began improving dramatically in 1998, when Wagner, initially her choreographer, became her full-time coach, not to mention surrogate mother, mentor and confidant. Says Hughes: "She was always asking me whether I liked something. When you're 10, you always want to be the boss, and when someone asks you for your input, you get really excited." A onetime singles skater, Wagner connects with Hughes as both a former competitor and a coach, and their bond is undeniably strengthened by the amount of time the two spend together off the ice. Wagner picks up Hughes six days a week at a shopping-mall parking lot, as she has done for four years, and the two drive an hour to the Ice House in Hackensack, N.J., where they train. The subject of skating is off limits during the round-trip commute. "Car time is for talking about anything but skating," says Wagner, who prefers current events.
Once at the Ice House, the Long Islander shares the rink with Olympics-bound pairs champions from the U.S. and Russia, and it's all business. Training with pairs, who generate more speed than singles skaters, pushes Hughes to mimic that power. After soliciting feedback from judges last season, Wagner and Hughes devoted the summer to addressing two criticisms of Hughes' skating--her still nascent expressiveness and her faulty technique on the triple Lutz jump, one of the most challenging leaps a female skater makes (only the triple Axel is more difficult). Hughes was slipping badly onto the wrong blade edge before taking off. Most women skaters make the error, as they lack the upper-body strength to hold the edge and counter the rotation of the hips. But the fault was more glaring in Hughes because she jumps in the direction opposite that of most skaters and in a corner of the rink where judges have a better view of any technical mishaps. Yamaguchi acknowledges that all this may contribute to Hughes' being unfairly singled out by the notoriously subjective skating judges: "Sometimes judges don't live by the rules, and they opt to see it or not to see it. I think that, yes, some skaters may be more penalized than others." For three months, Hughes tried to relearn the jump, and while she has made some adjustments, it is nearly impossible for a top skater to rewind a jump in such a short period of time after it becomes part of the body's repertoire. "It's much better, and I'd like people to compare [my Lutz] with others' now," says Hughes.
But there is still time--and always room--for improvement. After attending opening ceremonies, Hughes plans to continue perfecting her programs with Wagner in Colorado Springs, Colo., away from the distractions of the spectacle that is the Olympics. To capitalize on Hughes' jumping ability, the two have decided to throw in an additional triple-triple combination in her final program.
That's an ambitious move, but after patiently working her way up the ranks, Hughes knows she can match Kwan, and anyone else, on the ice. For Hughes, who once admired Kwan from across a restaurant, it's time to win some admirers of her own.