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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – So this is what figure skating has been missing these last four years.
The Americans have been trying to find someone – anyone – to give the sport its glitz, glamour and spunk ever since Sasha Cohen went on hiatus.
Turns out, all they needed was the real thing.
Simply by stepping onto the ice Thursday night, Cohen made American women’s skating a happening again. Fans cheered and whistled like she was a rock star, and there were so many camera clicks it sounded like a Hollywood premiere. By delivering like a pro, keeping herself squarely in the mix for a spot in Vancouver by finishing second in the short program, Cohen ensured the Olympic spotlight will remain squarely on skating for a few more days.
Lindsey Vonn’s big win? Those roster spots being doled out in snowboard and freestyle? Mere warm-ups for Saturday night’s free skate.
“It’s fun to have the attention, the appreciation, people hoping you’re going to do well,” Cohen said after Friday’s practice. “I had my nervous moments, but being out there and performing and having everyone here wishing me well … has been great. There’s been moments you feel pressure and expectations, but for the most part I’ve been able to set that aside and enjoy that I’m here for me.”
Indeed, Cohen looked relaxed and right at home again Friday. For the first time in her career, there is no one else to overshadow her, no Michelle or Sarah with whom she has to share the spotlight.
The other skaters are watching her every move, but she’s not concerned in the least with anyone else.
“It’s kind of like she’s taking ownership of this event,” said Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist who now coaches Christina Gao. “Sure, there’s some young whippersnappers buzzing around her doing the all the tricks – one of them is mine – but she’s not even fazed by it. She just has such a presence out there.”
Less than a point separates leader Mirai Nagasu, Cohen and Rachael Flatt. With only two Olympic spots available, Cohen will have to be perfect – or pretty darn close.
For all her talent and drive, the knock on Cohen has been her inability to keep it together when it matters most. She has yet to do clean short and long programs in the same major event, a fact she was reminded of Thursday night.
And again Friday.
“I know I’ve been training well, and I’ve done some really good longs in practice, which gives me confidence,” she said. “I am aspiring to that, I’m hoping to. We’ll see.”
Besides, Cohen is enjoying proving people wrong these days.
There were, to put it mildly, a few skeptics when the Olympic silver medalist announced her comeback in May. Sure she’d been skating, headlining the “Stars on Ice” tour. But she’d been out of the game since the 2006 world championships, an eternity in a sport where a few months on the competitive sidelines can leave you stale. At 25, she might as well be a card-carrying AARP member, having almost a decade on the rest of the competition.
When she pulled out of both Grand Prix assignments because of a bad case of tendinitis, the chorus of doubters grew.
“I can definitely tell you, when I was injured and skating awful, you want to be here, but you are how you feel each day,” Cohen said, calling that point “the lows of the low.” ”I believed in myself because I had some great moments and great days in training, and I was able to keep putting them together and get confidence enough to be here.
“Even my friends told me, ‘No one thinks you’re going.’ Well, don’t tell me that,” she added. “I can’t help what other people think. And it has been a while.”
Cohen has always had a stubborn streak, and she thrives at a challenge. She left Rafael Arutunian and went back to John Nicks, her coach since she was 9 and the man who has always brought out the best in her. She ignored the pain, training every day.
Got stronger, too. Don’t let her gorgeous crimson and lace couture-like dress from the short program fool you. Every inch of her upper body is toned and defined.
“She’s very deceptive,” Nicks said. “She looks like a petite little China doll, but you’ve got a very tough young lady.”
In mind and body.
The pressure at this event is crushing, the reward for all those years of hard work hanging in the balance. For some skaters, it was too much. Defending national champion Alissa Czisny was done after she splatted on her first jump. Former junior world champion Caroline Zhang admitted she came unglued watching everyone else. Ashley Wagner, 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes, even Flatt, to a degree – all had flaws.
Now imagine coming into this environment cold, knowing everyone from NBC to the casual fans expect you to single-handedly revive U.S. interest in the sport.
Instead of being a basket case, Cohen reveled in her moment. As she skated around, waiting for her name to be called, she bopped and sang along to the Britney Spears’ song playing on the arena PA system.
“For me, the big goal is being here and skating well here, and that’s what I want to accomplish and do for myself,” she said. “If the Olympics come with that, that would be great, that would be amazing. But I’ve been to two Olympics and many world championships. That’s a different month, a different thing and I’m pretty much in this little world right now.”
So far, life in that little world is good. She did a solid triple lutz-double toe loop combination 19 seconds into her program and then tossed off a triple flip, a jump that’s given her trouble in the past.
As always, though, it was the show that set Cohen apart.
Her spirals are if possible, even more impressive than before, and the audience probably would have been happy just to see those. She brought the house down with her forward Charlotte, which essentially has her gliding in the splits, her nose touching her shin.
As she began her footwork, she gave the fans in the front row a saucy little smile as if to say, “Missed me, didn’t you?”
“She’s skating as a lady, not a young girl,” Nicks said. “She knows how to put a program out and connect with the audience.”
In other words, she knows how to put on a show.
Nicks and Cohen are quick to defend the younger American skaters, saying the sport will be just fine. But there is – and always has been – something immensely captivating about Cohen. Dainty yet fiery, talented yet flawed, she is the epitome of why this blend of art and athletics has been so appealing for more than a century now.
For a few days, at least, figure skating is once again can’t-miss stuff for Olympic fans.
And Sasha is the reason.
“That’s the first thing I said yesterday after that short program, it’s great for U.S. figure skating,” Orser said. “She didn’t let anybody down.”