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Silver Lining
E.M. Swift
March 06, 2006
Her gold medal chances ended with two early stumbles, but the way Sasha Cohen bounced back gives her something to build on
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March 06, 2006

Silver Lining

Her gold medal chances ended with two early stumbles, but the way Sasha Cohen bounced back gives her something to build on

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It was so very different from the Salt Lake City Games. She was different too. Yet here she was the day after her roller-coaster free skate, sipping a cappuccino in a cafe on Via Nizza, just down the street from the arena where she had won her silver medal, struggling with that same gnawing feeling of disappointment she'd experienced after finishing fourth in 2002. "In Salt Lake, I was devastated not to win a medal," Sasha Cohen said last Friday, her huge brown eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare. "I cried and cried and cried. I was going to be Tara Lipinski. I would win, retire, go to college and move onto the next thing, being an actress or modeling or some other career. My focus has changed so much since then."

She had talked all season about focusing on the journey and not on the medal it might bring. And this conversation was part of that: deconstructing yet another flawed long program, one that had kept her from winning the gold in Turin. To those who would criticize her for again falling in a big competition--she'd already faced some of the negativity while making the rounds of the morning talk shows on the day after her event-- Cohen was surprisingly passive, measured and composed. Take your best shots, she was thinking. Go wild. But don't expect me to agree with you.

She didn't weep after the competition, as did the favorite, bronze medalist Irina Slutskaya, who then feigned cheerfulness for the press. She didn't cry herself to sleep after returning to her apartment on Thursday night. "I took a bath, washed my hair, blow-dried it, took half a sleeping pill and went to bed," Cohen said. "I've learned not to attack myself. It doesn't do any good. You can have regrets, but I don't know what I would have changed. Ice is slippery."

That much was clear. Just 44 hours after what had been probably the greatest short-program competition in Olympic history, the top women in the world looked as if they were performing on in-line skates in the free skate. Only 24-year-old Shizuka Arakawa of Japan withstood the withering pressure, and even she skated with less brilliance than she is capable of, landing only five triples and none of her vaunted triple triple combinations. In fact, none of the top nine skaters attempted a triple triple, a power outage remarkable to anyone who'd watched them knocking off those combinations in practice with no more effort than it takes to pluck petals from a rose.

The evening's train wreck started with Cohen, who after her near-perfect short held a lead of .03 over Slutskaya and .71 over Arakawa. Cohen, 21, had put up clean shorts before in major competitions only to follow them with flawed longs--a pattern she was eager to break.

Cohen, however, was competing at less than 100%. She had strained her groin slightly in a fall in practice after winning her first U.S. nationals in mid-January, then aggravated the injury while polishing her straight-line footwork just before leaving for the Games. In Italy she had daily physical therapy and trained with her legs wrapped. "Maintenance," she answered when asked about the ice pack on her upper thigh after the short. But it became clear that her injury was going to be a problem when she passed up both practices on the day before the long program to give her groin a rest.

Still, Cohen had been jumping well all week, and hopes were high that this, finally, would be the competition in which she would put it all together. The first sign of trouble, however, came in the warmup at Palavela arena, when she got crooked in the air while attempting a triple loop and slammed to the ice. Shaken, she then stepped out of a triple flip.

On her opening triple Lutz combination, Cohen didn't get enough height and fell. Her next jump was a triple flip combination, and the nightmare start continued when she stumbled and put both hands on the ice. This was getting ugly. Her next jump was the triple loop, the one on which she'd splatted during the warmups. A defining moment. She landed the loop, righting the ship. "I don't know how I was able to come back after that start, but I didn't let doubts come into my mind," she said. "I kept believing and thinking positive things."

She then began concentrating on and losing herself in the music, the soundtrack from Romeo and Juliet by Nino Rota. Taking one element at a time, she landed five clean triples in the final 3 1/2 minutes of her program--as many as Arakawa would land. It was about as well as she can skate, which is about as well as anyone can skate. " Turin will be a bittersweet memory for me," Cohen said last Friday. "I'm definitely disappointed, but I'm definitely proud of myself too. To go out and persevere.... I'm tougher than I thought. How you deal with adversity is what defines your character."

The 27-year-old Slutskaya, skating last and bidding to become the first Russian woman to win the Olympic gold medal (and to complete a Russian sweep in the four skating disciplines), dealt with her adversity the opposite way--after falling on a triple loop midway through her program, she mentally checked out once it was clear she wouldn't win the gold. A powerful jumper and two-time world champion who was the silver medalist in Salt Lake City, Slutskaya landed only four triple jumps in her program.

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