Relatively ignored as a gold medal contender, Hughes came out of nowhere to win the ladies' figure skating competition, stunning her error-prone competitors and the crowd at the Salt Lake Ice Center.
Having never placed better than third at the World Championships, Hughes was graceful and athletic during a near-flawless program that even left her surprised.
"In the past, I've held back, not always given it my all," she said. "Tonight, I just said, `I have nothing to lose.' I've never skated like that in my life.
"I just can't believe I'm an Olympic champion. It sounds strange to say."
She was not the only one who was surprised.
Four skaters remained after Hughes' routine and she watched as each made crucial mistakes, including fan and gold medal favorite Michelle Kwan.
"I heard the audience try to lift my spirits when they started clapping in the middle of the program," Kwan said. "I made a few mistakes, but I kept on going strong. It just wasn't meant to be tonight."
Kwan settled for the bronze medal behind 22-year-old Russian Irina Slutskaya. American Sasha Cohen finished fourth.
The 21-year-old Kwan waited four years for redemption after settling for the silver medal in 1998 at Nagano, when she was upset by fellow American Tara Lapinski.
Since then, Kwan has increased her number of world titles to four and national championships to six. She entered the event as the favorite, both by experts and the public.
It started well for the Californian, who won Tuesday night's short program to move closer to the elusive gold medal and had the overwhelming support of the crowd on Thursday.
But after receiving the largest ovation, Kwan made a pair of obvious mistakes, including a missed landing midway through her four-minute routine that forced her to one knee.
"It was solid after that, but making two mistakes in a program, it's not very good," she said. "It's a bummer because I've been skating great all week. Not my night."
While she went the rest of her program without a noticeable miscue, Kwan knew her fate was sealed, shrugging her shoulders and smiling before leaving the ice.
"I have to shrug my shoulders and say it's life, this is all about competition," said Kwan. "You don't skate well every night."
With Hughes entering the night fourth, Stutskaya needed only a clean program, but the three-time reigning World Championships runner-up did not perform one.
Skating last, the athletically charged Slutskaya skipped after an early combination and nearly fell while landing a jump near the end of the rink, struggling to keep her balance.
Slutskaya's scores suffered. She received marks of 5.7 to 5.9 for technical merit, but presentation figures that dipped to 5.6 allowed Hughes to keep five of the nine judges and win the gold medal.
"I skated well tonight, but it's upsetting that I again lost over the second mark, as if I'm not artistic," said Slutskaya, who lost 5-4 decisions in both programs. "But apparently, that's life.
"Interesting thing about these Olympic Games. I'm obviously not the only Russian that has suffered here."
Earlier Thursday, the Russian Olympic Committee threatened to pull out of the Salt Lake City Games for alleged bias against its athletes.