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10 years later, Olympic champs return to Salt Lake

FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2002 file photo, Sarah Hughes of the United States reacts after competing in the women's free skating program at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The lavender dress Hughes wore for the long program is in a museum, and her Olympic gold medal is tucked away for safekeeping. Her memories of the Salt Lake City Games, however, are always with her. FILE - In this Feb. 21, 2002 file photo, Sarah Hughes of the United States reacts after competing in the women's free skating program at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The lavender dress Hughes wore for the long program is in a museum, and her Olympic gold medal is tucked away for safekeeping. Her memories of the Salt Lake City Games, however, are always with her. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)
By Nancy Armour
AP National Writer / February 14, 2012
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AP National Writer—The lavender dress Sarah Hughes wore for the long program is in a museum, and her Olympic gold medal is tucked away for safekeeping.

Her memories of the Salt Lake City Games, however, are always with her.

"When they said 10 years, I was kind of blown away," the 2002 Olympic champion said. "In my mind I can remember everything as if it was just yesterday. But at the same time, it feels like a different lifetime because my life is so different now. I was a child then, I was 16."

Hughes is returning to Salt Lake City on Saturday night for a "Stars on Ice" show celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Winter Games. Also appearing are Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, in their first trip back to the Olympic arena since they were caught up in the judging scandal that rocked the Salt Lake City Games.

Sasha Cohen, the silver medalist in Turin, and Olympic champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and Ilia Kulik also are part of the show.

"I assume it's going to be excellent memories because I have only excellent memories of the Olympics," Pelletier said. "Even though I'm not a nostalgic person, I'm very much looking forward to it."

Though Hughes had won the bronze medal at the 2001 world championships, her gold in Salt Lake City remains one of the sport's great upsets.

In fourth place after the short program, the teenager still had a slim chance of winning a medal. But gold? Few outside her family would have predicted that. Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, the gold and silver medalists at three of the previous four world championships, were in front of her, as was Cohen. Hughes would have to be spectacular, and all three would have to make mistakes.

With all the focus -- and pressure -- on everyone else, Hughes took the ice with a carefree air, so loose she actually laughed when the audience greeted her with a roar. She breezed through the technical elements of her program, doing not one, but two triple-triple combinations, and seven triple jumps in all. She was so light on her blades she seemed to float across the ice, and she skated with the joy of someone alone in an empty rink.

She was so dazzling that her coach, Robin Wagner, bounced up and down as if on a trampoline for the last 15 seconds of the program. Fans were on their feet, too, getting louder with every second. When Hughes finished, she doubled over with glee and clapped her hands.

"When you hit the mark, when the dice rolls onto the winning numbers, it's like you hit the lottery," Hughes said.

With four skaters left, Hughes and Wagner headed back to the locker room to wait. Kwan two-footed a triple toe loop in combination, and fell on a triple flip. Slutskaya skated conservatively, and didn't even try any of the triple-triple combinations that had become her trademark.

When the final marks were posted, showing Hughes in first, Wagner wrapped Hughes in such a big hug it pulled both of them off a bench and onto the floor. The shrieks of joy could be heard clear into the arena.

"It was a dream come true. I couldn't have wished or hoped for anything better," said Hughes, who graduated from Yale in 2009. "A lot of times, when I think about it, it still seems surreal. But it makes me feel proud, it makes me feel happy. It fulfilled a lot of my goals and dreams in skating."

Sale and Pelletier's gold medal was equally hard won, though in an entirely different manner.

Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze initially were awarded the gold over Sale and Pelletier by the slightest of margins, despite Sikharulidze's step-out on a double axel. There was a howl of protest on television and in the stands, and Sale and Pelletier wept as they stood on the medals podium and listened to the Russian anthem.

But judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne told fellow judges afterward that she had been pressured by French federation president Didier Gailhaguet to put the Russians first. She later recanted, but the damage was done. With the scandal threatening to overshadow the rest of the Olympics, the decision was made to award Sale and Pelletier duplicate gold medals.

"I made my peace with it that night," Pelletier said. "The joy of having it done and having it well done that night, the joy of skating great that night under that much pressure, overshined the fact that we came in second."

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Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour

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