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Hughes targets second Olympic team

2007 U.S. silver medalist hopes year off from Harvard aids comeback

2007 U.S. silver medalist Emily Hughes (right) poses with long-time coach Bonni Retzkin.
2007 U.S. silver medalist Emily Hughes (right) poses with long-time coach Bonni Retzkin. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/10/2009) - Things are coming full circle for Emily Hughes.

When the 20-year-old took the ice last weekend at Flushing Meadows' World Ice Arena as part of Ice Theatre of New York's (ITNY) Summer Youth Concert Series, she continued a tradition that stretched back nearly 15 years.

"Part of what we do is give young skaters the opportunity to perform just for the joy of it," said ITNY founder Moira North.

"Both Emily and her sister [2002 Olympic champion] Sarah performed with us in shows at Rockefeller Center when Emily was just wee. Now that we're presenting other young talent, it's so nice she's coming back. The young skaters were thrilled."

It's back to the future in other ways as well. The 2007 U.S. silver medalist is taking a year off from her studies at Harvard University, leaving Cambridge in favor of the Hughes family home in Great Neck, Long Island, although she may return for a few weekends.

""I'm going to miss school a lot, but I'll visit every so often," Emily said. "My friends are supportive; my old roommates said there's always a futon waiting for me."

Of the six Hughes siblings, Emily will soon be the only one in full-time residence. Younger sister Taylor leaves for her freshman year at Tulane University in two weeks, although father John says, "Everyone is always in and out."

The skater is training full-time at Syosset's Iceworks with Bonni Retzkin, who began putting her through her paces when she was just three or four. And, just as she did at the beginning of her senior career in 2004-2005, she'll have to earn her way to the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships by competing at qualifying competitions this fall.

"That's okay," Hughes said. "You have to go from the ground floor to get to the top. I know I'll be doing regionals, probably sectionals, and maybe an international [competition] or maybe not. Either way, I'm still going to do my best to compete at nationals."

Hughes hit a nice double Axel performing to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Bad." The skater choreographed the routine while watching Jackson videos on her computer.

"I was doing a show in Lake Placid when he died," she said. "I thought this would be kind of a nice tribute. It's a fun number."

"It was all last minute, including the costume," Retzkin added. "The jacket is from a consignment shop; the hat came from the Zamboni driver."

Although she didn't include any triples in her initial program, as part of her encore, Hughes reeled off a triple toe loop, and Retzkin said the jumps were getting progressively stronger in practice.

"Slow and steady wins the race," said the coach. "Emily was supposed to compete at U.S. Collegiates [held in Ardmore, Pa., July 30-Aug. 1] but she sprained her ankle. I think it's because she started trying all the triples too fast.

"She hasn't really competed much the last two seasons. It's going to take a little bit of time."

Time may be running short. Hughes hasn't been seen at the U.S. Championships since 2007, when she came within a whisper of the title, losing gold to Kimmie Meissner by less than a point. In 2008, she was felled by a hip injury; last season, her troublesome ankle forced her withdrawal. The last time she competed on the international stage, 2008 Trophée Eric Bompard, she placed ninth.

"The last time I competed . . . that's not the way I want to go out," she said. "I want to look forward."

While some in the sport questioned the practicality of competing at the elite level while attending Harvard, Hughes doesn't regret giving it a try.

"I love school; I love having that balance between school and skating in my life," she said. "Doing both taught me a lot. To put [school] on hold, I hope it has a positive impact on my skating. I want to put all of my effort into it and give it one last go."

In recent weeks, she said, practices are going "a lot better."

"The ankle is taped up right now, and it's pretty much back to 100 percent. I'm back jumping. I saw David Wilson [in Toronto] a couple of months ago and worked on both of my programs."

She's keeping last season's free skate, choreographed by Wilson to the soundtrack of Gone with the Wind. Her new short is to Rachmaninoff's "Caprice Bohemian," created at the end of May and beginning of June.

"I love the music; [David Wilson] found it as a 14-minute piece, and at first I wondered how we would edit it," she said. "I look forward to seeing how it develops. Obviously, the next step is competition."

Hughes and Retzkin hope to test the programs at an upcoming non-qualifying competition or two, perhaps the Cranberry Open, Moran Memorial or Middle Atlantic Figure Skating Championships.

"That's the plan; of course, plans can change," Retzkin said, admitting a few of Hughes' harder elements may not be ready for the fast-approaching August and September events.

"[The competitions] are to spread the news she's coming back," she said. "Taking time off from school means business. Emily wants to do this for herself. I'm standing by her and supporting her and so are her parents, but it's her decision."

If she does compete at the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash., Hughes may face off against an old rival, also on the comeback trail: Sasha Cohen, who won silver at the 2006 Olympics, where Hughes placed seventh.

"I think it makes for a very interesting year, having all of these skaters, even me, come back," Hughes said, alluding to Cohen and Evgeni Plushenko, Stéphane Lambiel and pairs team Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao.

"Hopefully, there will be more viewers, more hype, more fans. If we can get more people to watch, that just makes it more exciting."

The ITNY Summer Youth Concert Series continues on Aug.15, 22 and 29 with more performances at the World Ice Arena in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The next guest stars will be six-time British ice dance champions and European bronze medalists Sinead Kerr and John Kerr, who are expected to show their new competitive programs. Admission is free.