- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Success can�come in a blinding flash of brilliance so sudden it shortens the breath and makes the hairs on the neck stand on end, like a bolt of lightning on a summer night. So it was with Sarah Hughes when, at age 16, she won the Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating in Salt Lake City. � Or success can hang on the horizon for years, a distant rumble, a calm of potential before the anticipated storm, buffeted by winds that might blow it in abruptly or carry it forever out to sea. � This has been the course of Sasha Cohen, the newest U.S. champion, a graceful 21-year-old Californian whose ethereal spins and spirals have dazzled the skating world since she was 15. That year, 2000, her first competing as a senior, Cohen, then a 4'9", 79-pound waif, nearly upset--and certainly upstaged-- Michelle Kwan at U.S. nationals. Cohen finished second, her stunning performance tarnished by a late fall on a relatively simple triple toe loop. But the experts were in agreement: America's next ice princess had arrived.
Cohen had it all: elegance (her longtime coach, John Nicks, said she was incapable of putting her body into an ugly position); spunk (at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics, Cohen handed her cellphone to President Bush and asked him to say hello to her Ukrainian-born mother, Galina, a former ballerina); and athleticism (at 16 Cohen already was working on a quadruple Salchow, which she landed 10% to 15% of the time in practice). But injury, a penchant for marring her performances with falls and the redoubtable Kwan kept Cohen's ascendancy at bay.
After missing much of 2001 with a back injury, Cohen finished second to Kwan at nationals three more times between '02 and '05. She was also runner-up at worlds twice: behind Japan's Shizuka Arakawa in '04 and Russia's Irina Slutskaya (page 90) in '05. At the 2002 Olympics, Cohen finished fourth.
Something always seemed to trip her up. Sometimes it came early in her program, sometimes it came late. Sometimes she faltered on a difficult jump, sometimes on an easy one. But there was always something, a sudden loss of focus. Impossibly flexible, effortlessly balletic, longing to step out of the shadows and become the star the sport needed and she believed she could be, Cohen changed coaches three times in 2 1/2 years, going from Nicks to Tatiana Tarasova to Robin Wagner and back to Nicks. Head case, her detractors said. Even fans wondered if Sasha's ship would ever come in.
And then it did, three weeks ago. At the 2006 nationals in St. Louis, with Kwan sidelined by a groin injury, Cohen broke through to win her first U.S. title. Whether it was because of the new Code of Points scoring system (page 77), which plays to Cohen's strengths, Kwan's absence or Cohen's own newfound maturity, she'd never seemed more in control. Despite missing three days of training leading up to the event with the flu, Cohen remained poised and relaxed all week. (The night before the long program Cohen, an avid reader, was overheard discussing Iran's resumption of its nuclear program at dinner with her mother and her agent, Lee Marshall.)
Cohen was freed, at last, from the suffocating need to be flawless, which is the downside of competing against a nine-time national champion like Kwan. "A couple of years ago I thought, Why doesn't she retire?" Cohen says of her rival. "Look how many nationals she has. Look how many worlds she's won [five]. Give someone else a turn.
"[Back then] my focus was only on getting first place; I just wanted to win. Now I've learned it's about your own performance and personal best."
The 199.18 points she scored in St. Louis were, indeed, a personal best, and while Cohen wasn't perfect--she two-footed a triple in her short program and stepped out of two triple jumps in her long--she didn't fall, and she finished an impressive 28 points ahead of runner-up Kimmie Meissner.
"Sasha's beginning to understand that perfection isn't something you should enter a competition seeking," says Wagner, who coached Cohen for 12 months beginning in December 2003. "Perfection's the enemy of performance. With the new judging system she can focus on building points instead of not making mistakes. It releases her from the pressure of being perfect."
Whether Cohen can remember that lesson in Turin remains to be seen, but no one disputes that she has all the tools to be Olympic champion. "Everyone's career has a different trajectory," Cohen said before winning nationals. "Everyone evolves in different ways. So far in my career I haven't been in the right place at the right time. I've improved every year, but I just haven't put it all together yet. I plan to change that this year."