Great Neck treats Hughes to parade worthy of gold

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It was a spectacle unlike any other to besiege the town of Great Neck, a crazy burst of fanfare and adulation that electrified an ordinarily quiet street with the glow of Sarah Hughes’ Olympic gold.

Throngs of teenage girls were running desperately after a black Bentley, where the poised young champion sat in a sharp red coat with a shiny piece of gold dangling from her neck — frequently caressed, sometimes kissed.

It was the kind of reception one would expect for a chart-topping music star on his first visit to a sleepy all-American town.

But on this day the teenagers were indifferent to pop icons and mesmerized by Hughes, one of their own, who at age 16 surprised the world by clinching the ladies’ figure skating gold medal in the Winter Olympic Games last month.

The town of Great Neck feted its Olympic champion Sunday morning with a parade that stretched for two miles along Middle Neck Road, hardly a mile from the Queens border. Onlookers crammed and sidewalks and lined the roadway from the Long Island Rail Road station down to Great Neck North HS, where Hughes had resumed classes the preceding Wednesday.

“It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to our town,” said Tanya Kessler, a senior at Great Neck South HS who waved a large American flag from the side of the road with two of her friends.

The streets of Great Neck were awash with gold for the celebration, from the shimmery ribbons stretched between parking meters to the balloons and pom-poms that bounced through the air.

An enormous mock gold medal dangling above the pillars at the entrance to her high school proclaimed in bold letters, “Welcome home, Sarah.”

If Hughes’ victory was unexpected, you would never know by chatting with the thousands of her fans who lined the street.

“I thought she was amazing. I was with her all the way,” said Grace Pentecoste, an 11-year-old figure skater who hoped Hughes would see her large poster announcing “I’m a skater, too.”

“I had a feeling she was gonna win,” she said.

Local fire companies hung American flags above the roadway from ladders rising high above their rigs, while vintage cars on the ground carried such dignitaries as U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)

Through the windows of the fashionable boutiques lining Middle Neck Road, clerks could be seen standing on chairs among the mannequins to catch a glimpse of the ice princess.

Hughes’ victory seemed to have propelled her into a new stratosphere of popular appeal for her fellow teenagers.

One fluorescent yellow sign brazenly instructed Justin Timberlake, the curly-haired lead vocalist of boy band ‘N Sync, to ditch girlfriend and reigning pop diva Britney Spears “4 Sarah.”

Some girls, clad in plaid flannel pants and flip-flops that looked suspiciously like pajamas, ran after the medal winner shouting her name while professing their eternal adoration.

But the adults who accompanied the screaming hordes of teenagers also saw a more profound purpose in the parade, which came one day before the city and the world would mark the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“New York needed this and America needed this,” said Sandra Silverman, an enthusiastic bystander whose voice was soon drowned out beneath a marching band’s thunder when the parade set out shortly past 11 a.m.

Even the youngest fans were mesmerized by the champion Long Islander.

“My daughter is only 3, but she thinks ice skating is beautiful, so she wanted to come,” said Great Neck resident Drew Blanch as he stood with Emmy, his little girl.

Unfortunately, she hardly had the best seat in the house.

“When you’re three feet tall, you’re not getting much of a view,” Blanch said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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