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Her Time Has Come
E.M. Swift
February 06, 2006
Long touted as her sport's next queen, the dazzling Sasha Cohen has finally supplanted Michelle Kwan as the U.S.'s best skater
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February 06, 2006

Her Time Has Come

Long touted as her sport's next queen, the dazzling Sasha Cohen has finally supplanted Michelle Kwan as the U.S.'s best skater

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Her career path has taken several turns since the 2002 Games. The summer after her disappointing finish in Salt Lake City--she stood third, ahead of Hughes, after the short program but two-footed a triple Lutz and fell on a triple toe loop in her long program--Cohen left Nicks and her native Southern California and moved with her family to Newington, Conn., to train with the Russian-born Tarasova, who has guided Russian men to the last two Olympic titles ( Ilia Kulik in 1998 and Alexei Yagudin in 2002). "I used to train like a casual athlete, without a strategy behind it," Cohen says. "Tatiana was the first coach to explain that skating had to be your life. She taught me about off-ice training, to train in the summer, how to taper before a competition. She taught me how just driving into L.A. with friends takes energy away from your training. Her philosophy is to work hard and rest hard."

Cohen started lifting weights. She began running and working on her cardiovascular endurance. Today, at 5'2" and 95 pounds, she's built more like a gymnast than a waif and can leg press 400 pounds. "I feel now when I land my jumps, I'm landing on a column rather than the spaghetti noodles I skated on in 2000," Cohen says.

Her partnership with Tarasova worked well at first, and Cohen enjoyed the best international results of her career. She won six of eight Grand Prix events she entered in the 2002-03 season and the prestigious '03 Grand Prix Final. But Cohen's inconsistency and Tarasova's poor health and emotional nature proved a volatile mix, eventually convincing Cohen that she needed to move on. "I loved the attention, the intensity, having three hours of coaching a day just devoted to me," she says. "But Tatiana began having some problems with her heart, and when I had a couple of bad performances she couldn't handle it."

Cohen abruptly announced her switch to Wagner on Christmas Eve 2003. Wagner, who coached Hughes, has an attitude and manner that made him a refreshing change from Tarasova. "Robin helped to rebuild me," Cohen says. "She got me back on track and taught me if you do something right in practice, you still have to do it again until it gets automatic and ingrained."

Cohen finished second at both nationals and worlds in 2004, but she was unable to break through to the top. Off the ice her life on the East Coast was increasingly unsettled. For a while she commuted from Connecticut to the rink in Hackensack, N.J., where Wagner taught. She briefly lived with Wagner and her husband on Long Island. Finally she rented an apartment in New York City with her mother and younger sister, Natasha, now 17. Adding to her anxiety, her parents separated in October 2004--father Roger is a corporate lawyer--and Cohen again began suffering back problems, the result of a lifetime of layback spins. She even had a hard time finding comfortable skating boots and blades. "Basically, I was just lost," she says.

Her solution was to return to California in December 2004 with her mother and sister and rejoin the 76-year-old Nicks, who was only too happy to take her back. "Mentally, she left as a teenager and came back as a young lady," Nicks says. "She's more mature."

And more consumed with attaining her ultimate goal of becoming Olympic champion. The sport has its skating mothers and skating fathers--overbearing, willful parents--but, according to Nicks, Sasha is the driven one in the Cohen family. "It was always her," he says. "She's very strong-minded. Not impulsive, really. She's very respectful and well-behaved. She likes to have a say in decisions, which is fine. The one problem I have now is Sasha's overintensity. She's fixated on her competitive year. At times I think she should go out and have a good time, but all she wants to talk about now is skating. I'd like to see her throttle back a little."

But there is no throttling back when you are closing in on the Olympics and a dream that for so long has been in sight but out of reach. Every day Galina, with whom Sasha has bought a house in Corona del Mar, makes a video of her daughter's practice session, which Sasha later studies on her computer and critiques. She doesn't have a boyfriend ("You're too picky," her sister tells her) and prefers cooking at home to partying. "I don't go out much because I've learned that everything takes its toll," Cohen says. "I want to be in bed at 10 p.m., even on weekends. We act like we're retired. I get up early, put on my robe, have a cappuccino and turn on the Food Network."

At her 21st birthday party, on Oct. 26, Cohen went to bed while her guests were still celebrating in her home. Five days later she was invited to a Halloween party. She didn't have a costume, so Cohen told her sister, "I should just be fabulous!" She then put on high heels and went as herself.

Still, she was home by 10. "I'm very focused on my goals," she says, her big brown eyes shining with clarity.

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