Hughes was born in Great Neck, New York. Her father, John Hughes, is a Canadian of Irish descent and was one of the captains of the undefeated and untied NCAA champion 1969–70 Cornell University ice hockey team. Her mother, Amy Pastarnack, is Jewish and is a breast cancer survivor. This led Sarah Hughes to become an advocate for breast cancer awareness. She appeared in a commercial for General Electric promoting breast cancer awareness and research. Hughes stated: "I always said that if I can get one person to get a mammogram, I've accomplished something." Among the other causes Hughes supports are Figure Skating in Harlem, which provides free ice skating lessons and academic tutoring for girls in the Harlem community in New York City. Hughes has supported this program for over ten years.
Hughes attended Great Neck North High School. In 2003, she began her studies at Yale University. On May 25, 2009, Hughes graduated from Yale and received a bachelor's degree in American studies with a concentration in U.S. politics and communities. She currently is a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Sarah Hughes is the fourth of six children. One of her younger sisters, Emily, is also a figure skater and competed at the 2006 Winter Olympics. In December 2012, her older brother Matt, graduated from the police academy and is currently an NYPD officer. She is the cousin of Gregg "Opie" Hughes, from the Opie & Anthony show.
Sarah Hughes began skating at the age of three. Robin Wagner, who also choreographed for her from 1994, became her head coach in January 1998.
Hughes won the junior title at the 1998 U.S. Championships in the 1997–1998 season. The following season, she competed on the ISU Junior Grand Prix and won the silver medal at the 1998–1999 Junior Grand Prix Final. She also took silver at the 1999 World Junior Championships held in November 1998. At the 1999 U.S. Championships, Hughes won the pewter medal in her senior-level debut. As the fourth-place finisher, Hughes would not normally have received one of the three spots for U.S. ladies at the 1999 World Championships, however, Naomi Nari Nam, the silver medalist, was not age-eligible for the event according to ISU rules. Hughes was likewise not age-eligible but at the time a loophole existed for skaters who had medaled at Junior Worlds. Hughes was sent to senior Worlds and finished 7th in her debut.
In the 1999–2000 season, Hughes made her Grand Prix debut, winning the bronze medal at the 1999 Trophée Lalique. She won the bronze medal at the 2000 U.S. Championships and was credited with a triple-salchow-triple-loop combination. She placed 5th at the 2000 World Championships.
In the 2000–2001 season, she won three medals on the Grand Prix circuit and won the bronze medal at the 2000–2001 Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final. She won the silver medal at the 2001 U.S. Championships. At the 2001 Worlds, she won the bronze medal.
In the 2001–2002 season, Hughes competed again on the Grand Prix, winning the 2001 Skate Canada International and placing second at her other two events. She won her second consecutive bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final and then won the bronze medal at the 2002 U.S. Championships to qualify for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The week before the opening of the 2002 Olympics, Hughes appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
At the 2002 Olympics, Hughes placed fourth in the short program after being penalized for underrotating her triple flip and lutz. In her long program, she landed seven triple jumps, including a triple toe loop-triple loop and a triple salchow-triple loop combination. She won the long program, as the three contenders ahead of her after the short program all made mistakes in their respective long programs. Figure Skating rules at the time dictated that if someone placed fourth in the short program, but won the free skate, they could not automatically win the event. Michelle Kwan, who was in first place after the short program would have to lose the free program to Hughes and one other skater as well. Hughes won the free skate, with Irina Slutskaya placing second in that portion, ahead of Kwan. Therefore, the final standings were Hughes in first, Slutskaya in second and Kwan in third. She is the only American woman to have won the Olympic title without ever having won either a World or U.S. senior national title.
After her Olympic win, Hughes was honored with a parade in her hometown of Great Neck. Senator Hillary Clinton spoke at the event and declared it Sarah Hughes Day. She received the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the U.S.
Hughes' biography, Sudden Champion: The Sarah Hughes Story, was written by Richard Krawiec in 2002.
Hughes had a variety of triple-triple jump combinations, including a triple loop-triple loop, triple salchow-triple loop, and a triple toe-triple loop. Her best jump was perhaps the triple loop which she often completed out of a back spiral. She was also known for her camel spin with change of edge, and her spiral position.
|Season||Short program||Free skating||Exhibition|
|Grand Prix Final||3rd||3rd|
|GP Cup of Russia||3rd|
|GP Skate America||4th||2nd||2nd|
|GP Skate Canada||1st|
|U.S. Championships||1st J.||4th||3rd||2nd||3rd||2nd|
|GP = Grand Prix; JGP = Junior Grand Prix; J. = Junior level|