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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."