At the U.S. national figure skating championships 10 years ago a quick, cruel whack above the kneecap propelled Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding and their ostensibly refined sport into the belly of the beast: America's unquenchable appetite for the bizarre and outrageous. The subsequent ratings boom at the Olympics led to a period of unprecedented growth in the sport. A lead pipe had launched a golden age.
A decade later the boom is going bust, as un-sensationalist behavior by the skaters has softly killed the appetite of the casual fan. Good citizen Michelle Kwan (think of Pete Sampras on skates) has kept new faces at bay, presiding over an era that has been called, with mixed emotions, the Nice Age. The 23-year-old Kwan's dominance continued last Saturday night in Atlanta, where she won her eighth national title—and seventh in a row. Unflappable as Bond, keeping her eyes on the 2006 Olympics and the gold medal that to date has eluded her, Kwan remains at the top of her game.
Meanwhile, Sasha Cohen, who could help create a series of compelling confrontations from now until the Turin Games, is in danger of becoming the Phil Mickelson of her sport. Talent? Good Lord, she can put her body into positions you wouldn't wish on a squid. She has sensational spins and spirals and all the requisite jumps. But with her second-place finish in Atlanta, the 19-year-old Cohen has now finished behind Kwan three times at the nationals. She can win the nonmajors ( Cohen has won four competitions this season), but when the stakes are highest, she has a tendency to fall, as she did in Atlanta.
Robin Wagner believes she can change that. Formerly the coach of 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes, Wagner started working with Cohen on Dec. 24, after the skater's sudden parting with Russian coach Tatiana Tarasova, an overbearing woman who instructed while standing off the ice. Now Cohen has a coach who races her during practice. "It's the process that's so vital because the moment of success comes and goes," Wagner says. "I believe Sasha will get to her destination if she enjoys her journey."
"We have that chemistry," says Cohen. "She's brought a lot of the joy back into my skating, like when I was eight years old. We just click." The skating world can only hope that their relationship yields results. The advent of a true rivalry is the sport's best chance for putting some fire back onto the ice.