SALT LAKE CITY -- Michelle Kwan is nowhere near ready to get off the medals podium, yet people are already trying to crown her successor.
Consider Sarah Hughes. She has athletic ability and a budding gracefulness, not to mention a couple of impressive titles. She just might have what it takes.
But hold on a second, Hughes and coach Robin Wagner warn -- the kid is only 13. This is her first trip to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships as a senior. Don't push her onto any podiums, they say. She's not ready yet.
"This is really just the start for her, it's the development I'm looking for," Wagner said. "You can't reach too far too soon. It's got to be a comfortable process."
The women's competition begins Thursday with the short program, and Kwan is the overwhelming favorite to win her third U.S. crown. But after Kwan, second and third place are wide open. Nicole Bobek, the 1995 U.S. champion, has endometriosis and withdrew last weekend.
That leaves Angela Nikodinov and Amber Corwin, fifth and sixth at nationals last year. Or Brittney McConn, who was fourth at the 1998 World Junior Championships. Or Naomi Nari Nam, a sprite who's zoomed through the novice and junior ranks.
Or how about Hughes, who won the U.S. junior title last year and finished second at the junior worlds in November?
"You can't go out with such high expectations or else you're going to kill yourself with putting pressure on yourself," she said. "I'm just going to go out and treat it like any other competition. You can't look at a competition and say, `Oh, my gosh, it's the world juniors!' Or, `Oh, my gosh, it's senior nationals!'
"You just go out and do what you can do because that's all you have control over."
That philosophy has worked pretty well for Hughes. The fourth of sixth children, she took up skating to tag along with her older brothers and sister. Their father played hockey at Cornell, and he introduced his children to the ice early.
"I just followed them," Hughes said, shrugging. "I'd skate and chase them around the rink."
Wagner began working with Hughes four years ago and immediately saw she had the athletic ability to be a good jumper. But she also had a delicate presence on the ice -- a combination that's made Kwan one of the most successful and popular skaters ever.
Hughes' breakthrough came last season, when she won three of four competitions.
"When she won juniors last year, I thought, `OK, she's taken that first, actually small step.' Then when she was second at junior worlds, I said, `Now she's taken that second step,"' Wagner said. "Juniors is really just the beginning. Her winning juniors put her into the arena where she can really further her career."
But Wagner wants to make sure Hughes develops the right way. Countless skaters have risen too far too fast and burned out. And when Tara Lipinski vaulted to the top of the senior ranks as a 14-year-old, she was picked on for wearing costumes and skating to music that emphasized her youth.
So Wagner is walking a fine line. Hughes' short program is to Chopin's "Fantasy Impromptu" and her free skate is excerpts from "Swan Lake." Both programs are elegant and showcase her improving artistic ability, yet they're appropriate for a 13-year-old.
"She is so young that I didn't want to do anything that was extremely passionate or deep in emotion and yet," Wagner said. "Those are two pieces of music that, as a young skater, she could interpret and feel comfortable skating to, and still grow with throughout the year."
Grow into another Kwan? If not quite yet, perhaps someday.
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