March 11, 2002 12:00 PM

Can it get any more awesome for a 16-year-old girl than meeting the guys in ‘N Sync for a private five-on-one chat? That’s just what happened to Sarah Hughes at the Olympic Medals Plaza in Salt Lake City one day before the closing ceremonies, when America’s new darling spent 15 minutes with the band after watching them rehearse. Exhilarating? You bet—for the guys, that is. “She’s 16 years old, and she wins the gold medal; it’s crazy!” says ‘N Sync’s Lance Bass, shaking his head with wonder. “It was great to meet her.”

Such is the newly upside-down world of Sarah Hughes, the high school junior who stunned jaded Olympics watchers with a wonderfully in-sync performance that led to an upset gold medal victory in the women’s figure-skating finals on Feb. 21. Seemingly out of gold medal contention after a fourth-place finish in the short program two days earlier, Sarah executed a daring and exuberant routine in the long program, vaulting her past favorites Michelle Kwan and the Russian Irina Slutskaya, who both stumbled in their final tries. Sarah’s flowing, from-the-heart skating—and her infectiously joyous grin—helped erase the aftertaste of an ugly judging scandal in pairs skating earlier in the Games. “This was one of the great nights in figure skating,” says NBC commentator Scott Hamilton. “It was the first time a woman ever did two triple-triple combinations in an Olympic Games. The right skater won.”

It was also another heartbreaking defeat for Michelle Kwan, 21. Four years ago, in Nagano, Japan, impish Tara Lipinski, then only 15, snatched a gold medal away from the U.S.’s star skater. With a chance finally to win the one honor that has eluded her, Kwan—the reigning world champ going into the Games—fell to the ice on a triple flip and settled for a bronze, the stepsister outdazzled by Cinderella yet again. “You don’t skate well every night,” says a resigned but gracious Kwan, who has not yet decided if she will compete in the 2006 Olympics.

For Sarah, the fairy tale started the moment she and coach Robin Wagner, 44, tumbled to the floor in a spontaneous embrace when they learned the teen had won the gold. After getting her medal, Sarah, the pride of Great Neck, N.Y., partied late into the night with her family: father John, 53, a tax attorney; mother Amy, 52, an accountant turned homemaker; brothers David, 20, and Matt, 18; and sisters Rebecca, 24, Emily, 13, and Taylor, 10. (Emily is a promising junior skater.) “I showed everyone the medal and they said, ‘Ooh, I can’t believe how heavy it is,'” says Sarah of that night. “Sometimes they were more interested in the medal than in me. I was like, ‘Hey, what about me?'”

To those who know her, Sarah’s victory didn’t come as a total surprise—just a little ahead of schedule. Wearing a yellow snowsuit and plastic molded skates, she was only 3 when she followed her hockey-playing older brothers onto the skating rink her father built in their backyard. Before long she was taking lessons at a nearby rink. “She’d fall, giggle, then get up again,” says Patti Johnson, 39, her first coach. “She had no fear.”

As she rose through the junior ranks, she got a scare in 1997 when her mother, who drove her to her daily practices, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Amy underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant and has been cancer-free for three years. “It was really hard,” Sarah told PEOPLE last year. “She told me that watching me skate was the best medicine she could possibly have.”

At the 2001 national championships Sarah placed second but slipped to third at this year’s event, landing a spot on the Olympic squad behind Kwan and up-and-coming Sasha Cohen. Her fourth-place finish in the short program, though, appeared to end her gold medal hopes. That’s when Robin Wagner, her choreographer since 1994 and coach since 1998, gave her a pep talk. “I said, ‘Keep your spirits up,'” says Wagner, so close to Sarah she is like a big sister. “‘There’s more to come.'” Indeed, Sarah had a secret weapon: a revamped long program with two triple-triple combinations, something no female Olympic skater had ever landed before. “I needed to pull out everything I could do,” she says, “and just nail them.” Before the finals Sarah smooched her good-luck teddy bear, perhaps her most important ritual. “I always kiss him before I compete,” she says, holding up the little brown bear. “See the lipstick?”

To the lush strains of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, Sarah skated with a joy no other contestant managed that night. “I didn’t hold back,” she says. “I just skated for the fun of it.” Sarah’s parents, too anxious to stay in their seats at the Salt Lake Ice Center, watched on a monitor in a corridor while filling out crossword puzzles, a family hobby, to calm their nerves. After their daughter’s routine, John turned to Amy and asked, “What’s a four-letter word to describe Sarah’s performance?” recalls Amy. “I said, ‘But wow is only three letters. And then I said, ‘Oh, gold!”

A little nervous herself, Sarah sat in an empty locker room and listened to Christina Aguilera on her earphones while Kwan and Slutskaya skated. When they stumbled, Sarah had the gold. Russian officials protested Slutskaya’s lower scores, to no avail. Unlike the judging scandal that cost Canadian pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier a gold medal—which they were later awarded on top of the gold won by the Russian team—Sarah’s performance was, indisputably, worthy of first place. “The entire package was there,” says ABC skating commentator Dick Button. “It was the most magnificent demonstration of controlled focus I have seen in a long time. There wasn’t an ounce of substance to the [Russians’] claim.”

Then came the victory whirlwind and that classic teenage dilemma: Leno or Letterman? To help her decide which late-night show she might want to do, Sarah e-mailed Benjamin Plesser, 17, a friend from Great Neck North High School. “I told her I thought Jay Leno is funnier,” says Plesser. Back in Great Neck, proud patrons at her favorite deli are snapping up the newly renamed Golden Sarah Hughes sandwich (honey maple turkey and Swiss on a club roll), while town officials organized a two-mile parade in her honor. “Around here she’s just one of the kids, and that’s what the community loves about her,” says Richard Arenella, who runs the Parkwood Ice Rink where Sarah once skated. “I think she’s going to continue to be unaffected by all the attention.”

Corporate suitors like General Mills—they put her on a Wheaties box—have already come calling, and in the months ahead Sarah could earn millions in endorsement deals. But for Sarah, a top student whose teachers gladly work around her skating schedule, the more important number is somewhere in the high 1500s—the score she’s shooting for when she takes her SATs this spring. (She wants to go to Harvard or Columbia and prep for med school.) “I have her SAT books now and they are so heavy,” says her mother, who brought the books to Salt Lake City. “I don’t know how she can concentrate right now, but she will.”

It helps that Sarah is, as teenagers tend to be, a tad blasé about her remarkable achievement. “It was a dream of mine to be an Olympic champion but not a lifelong goal,” she says. “I’m 16 and I have a lot of exciting events ahead of me.” After all, she doesn’t have her driver’s license yet.

Alex Tresniowski

Lorenzo Benet and Cynthia Wang in Salt Lake City and Diane Clehane in Great Neck

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