In one of the biggest upsets in Olympic figure skating history, 16-year-old American Sarah Hughes soared from fourth place to win the gold medal Thursday.

Her victory stumped favored U.S. skater Michelle Kwan, who dropped to bronze after making two major mistakes. Russia's Irina Slutskaya wound up with the silver.

The path to victory was an unexpected and difficult one for Hughes. Hughes has never won a U.S. title and she was third to Kwan and American Sasha Cohen at the national championships last month. Hughes may have won the bronze at the world championships last year, but she wasn't supposed to challenge Kwan and Slutskaya here.

"I think a lot of people counted me out and didn't think I could do it," Hughes said. "I didn't even think it would be possible, so just to be sitting here with this medal around my neck, I didn't think it could happen."

Hughes had beaten Kwan just once, an upset in Skate Canada last November where she also beat Slutskaya.

"I decided, you know what, I'm coming into the Olympics in third place in our country, and I really need to pull out everything I can do," Hughes said.

Nervous and tight during Tuesday night's short program, Hughes was loose Thursday. When the crowd gave her a roaring ovation as she stepped on the ice, she actually laughed.

"I didn't want to skate for a gold medal," she said. "I went out and had a great time. I said, 'This is the Olympics. I want to do the best."'

She breezed through seven triple jumps, five in combination — a more difficult routine than the ones by Kwan and Slutskaya. She was so incredible that her coach, Robin Wagner, was hopping up and down as if on a trampoline for the last 15 seconds of the program.

The fans were on their feet, too, getting louder with every second while Hughes' smile grew with the din. When she finished, she nearly doubled over in joy. She clapped to herself, and there were tears in her eyes as she blew kisses to the crowd.

Wagner greeted Hughes at the sideboards with a hug, and then the coach turned her young student around. As Wagner whispered in her ear, Hughes looked down at the ice.

"Just take this in," Wagner told her. "It's really your time to shine."

Forty minutes later, the newest Olympic champion was even more awestruck as a gold medal was placed around her neck.

When Hughes was told of the results by a cameraman, her mouth dropped open and Wagner dragged her off a bench onto the floor.

"No one will ever be able to take away from her what she did tonight," Wagner said.

Once again, Kwan was left to look at a spunky American teenager standing above her on the podium. She may have been a tad conservative four years ago in Nagano, but she skated beautifully enough to be an Olympic champion. Then a 15-year-old sprite named Tara Lipinski poured all her joy and emotion onto the ice and snatched the gold right out of Kwan's hands.

At least then it was "Tara vs. Michelle For the Gold" from the start. Lipinski was the reigning world champion and had won a U.S. title already. The two had been rivals for two years, and it was clear the gold was going to one of them.

And no one can give Kwan what she lost. The 21-year-old is a far more accomplished skater than she was in Japan, and has four world and six U.S. titles. She seemed to have learned her lesson from Nagano, too, savoring the entire Olympic experience and looking looser before she skated than she has in years.

But unlike in Nagano, she won't even have a solid performance to remember. She two-footed a triple toe loop in combination, and fell on a triple flip. She knew she was in trouble when she finished, shrugging her shoulders as if to say, "What can you do?"

As she awaited her marks, she nervously gripped her father's hand.

"I think I was a little more disappointed in Nagano, just because I skated much better," Kwan said. "I guess it's different. But both ended up crying."

Kwan lost again because a skater's final total is reached by adding "factored placements" for both the short and long programs. Until Slutskaya skated, Kwan's combined score would have been enough to beat Hughes.

But Slutskaya's performance in the free skate earned her second and pushed Kwan into third for the bronze. Cohen slipped from third to fourth.

Kwan was incredibly gracious in defeat. She clapped when Hughes was introduced as the Olympic champion, and she hugged the girl who only a few years ago looked up to Kwan as one of her idols.

"I've experienced much the last four years," Kwan said. "I've realized it doesn't matter the color of your medal."

But her puffy red eyes said differently. Her bronze medal was buried beneath a thick black sweater, the ribbon obscured by the scarf wrapped around her neck.

Unless she sticks around for 2006, the closest she'll get to Olympic glory is a plastic gold medal that 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill gave her. Kwan gladly whipped the dimestore prize out before slowly displaying her real medal.

"It's not as heavy as this (bronze) one," Kwan said, holding up the toy gold. "But it's just as nice. This is the color medal I would have liked."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.