By Philipp Hersh
The Chicago Tribune (USA)
Sasha Cohen always has looked like a delicate statuette, with a complexion pale as translucent bone china and 90 pounds stretched across her 5-foot body. After four days of battling the flu, Cohen looked wan and even more frail as she practiced for the women’s competition at last month’s US Figure Skating Championships.
“Bad timing”, Cohen said of her illness, which kept her off the ice three days. The illness wasn’t the only unfortunately timed episode for Cohen at the national meet. The absence of injured defending champion Michelle Kwan made Cohen’s first national title triumph anti-climactic.
“It definitely would mean more to win with Michelle here, but I’m not complaining about the title", Cohen said. At the US Olympic Committee’s autumn media day in Colorado Springs, Cohen sat below a huge poster of Kwan. The nine-time US champion’s presence has loomed over Cohen’s entire career. Cohen has been second to Kwan four times at nationals, twice losing despite leading after the short programme. With that record, it is easy to forget that Cohen, with two silver medals, has beaten Kwan at the last two world championships.
“It feels a little weird without Michelle”, the 21-year-old Cohen said. “Just me and all these little girls”. None - not runner-up Kimmie Meissner nor third finisher Emily Hughes, both 16 years old - came close to beating Cohen. Yet her failure to capitalize on chances to win US titles in 2000 and 2004, the world title in 2004 and an Olympic medal in 2002 have left Cohen with a reputation as a skater who beats herself. “It’s when you don’t win that you learn things about yourself”, Cohen said. “Everything I have gone through has made me who I am today”.
Cohen has been searching for that identity since finishing fourth at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She made three coaching changes, and those peregrinations led her family to uproot itself twice, going from Orange County, California, to Connecticut in 2002 and then returning to California a year ago. She is back with John Nicks, the coach who brought her to the elite level. Nicks, 76, who combines an avuncular side with a rapier wit, had had a tempestuous relationship with the strong-willed Cohen. “When I came back to Mr Nicks, he said a skater who is older and more mature should have more input and responsibility for her skating”, Cohen said. “I feel I set my game plan and goals. He is always the one who is telling me to slow down a little bit”. Nicks said his attempts to get the skater to lighten up usually are in vain. “Sasha is so intense”, Nicks said. “She thinks of little else besides skating and competition. Most 21 year olds, you would be telling to cut down on partying. With Sasha, I have to tell her to relax". For all that, Cohen seems more comfortable in her own skin. Prone in the past to sidestep questions about her impact as one of the few Jewish US Olympians, Cohen discussed her heritage with a mix of humor and matter-of-factness last fall.
“I celebrate Hanukkah”, Cohen said. “Anything with gifts is good”. Cohen explained that her Jewish experience was limited because her mother, Galina, a Ukrainian emigre, couldn’t practice religion during her childhood in the Soviet Union. “I wasn’t raised going to synagogue”, Cohen said. “My mother wasn’t brought up with that, so I wasn’t brought up with it”. One of Cohen’s grandparents was a gymnast who once performed for Stalin. Dictators are known to be even tougher judges than the ones who evaluate Cohen on the ice. The ongoing criticism of Cohen has focused on her inability to do back-to-back “clean,” or error-free, programmes in competition. In no national or international competition has she completed both short and long programmes as planned. She had mistakes in both programmes at nationals, and Cohen never has done a flawless free skate in an Olympic-style event.
“Nobody doubts she has the talent to do it sooner or later”, Nicks said. Cohen thought she was ready for such performances this season, until a hip injury forced her to withdraw from the Skate America Grand Prix event.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
She returned a month later to finish second to Japanese phenomena Mao Asada at the Paris Grand Prix event.
“I’m preparing physically much harder, and I’m much more prepared”, Cohen said last month. “I am more confident and more comfortable with what I have to do".
In 2004 and 2005, Cohen switched coaches less than a month before the US Championships. The latter departure, leaving Robin Wagner (coach of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes) for Nicks, was not entirely amicable.
The question always has been whether she can face up to changing herself. Cohen could start by finding the page in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that tells the story of Narcissus, who fell in love with himself and began “too late to find out all the long-perplex’d deceit”.
Alexandra Pauline Cohen is the closest thing to a diva figure skating has seen since Katarina Witt left the scene nearly a decade ago.
Cohen knows it too. "I love the attention. I love the spotlight", she says. And that’s a good thing in a sport where charisma counts. So, going by a sonorous and exotic single name, the Russian diminutive of Alexandra, seems especially appropriate given her diminutive physical proportions. She skates a lot bigger, radiating a magnetism that makes it impossible to take one’s eyes off her.
“Sasha has a 100 percent Russian soul”, said Tatiana Tarasova, coach of the Russian men who won the last two Olympic golds. Part headstrong enfant terrible, part graceful sylph, all eye-catching as she twists her body into Cirque du Soleil movements, Cohen is the sport’s “it” girl. When Cohen looks at her image, she sees a reflection of only beauty, and those closest to her have done nothing to disabuse the skater of that misimpression. Wagner and Tarasova, the coach who preceded her, endeavored in vain to shatter the misimpression. “I really tried when I was working on the East Coast (with Wagner and Tarasova), but nothing seemed to be getting better”, Cohen said. Wagner thinks Cohen was too content with her skating to try hard to get better. That became evident to Wagner when Cohen put off her return to serious training for a month and did not tell the coach what was going on.
“She is a magnificent skater with magnificent artistic qualities, but why not push yourself?”, Wagner said. “Why not do a new spiral sequence, a triple-triple [jump] combination, something challenging musically? You can do those things only if you are willing to accept mental and physical discomfort on a daily basis. It is very difficult for Sasha to get out of her comfort zone”. Musically daring when she burst into the spotlight at the 2000 nationals, Cohen has regressed to the tried-and-true: Romeo and Juliet this year, The Nutcracker last year, Swan Lake before that. Those choices reflect her mother’s apparent infatuation with all things Russian, an infatuation that played into a decision to uproot the family so the skater could train in Connecticut with Tarasova. As she moved around, Cohen seemed to be getting further away by the minute from realizing the potential that dazzled the skating world at 15.
“Talent, greatness and potential sometimes cause an athlete to become complacent”, Wagner said. “Sasha was becoming complacent. If you’re not No. 1, you can’t go into a holding pattern”.
When Cohen shocked Nicks by dumping him a few months after finishing fourth at the 2002 Olympics, she said a major reason was the crowded conditions on the rink where the coach was working. Now she is back at the same rink, with a coach who had been paying far more attention to deep-sea fishing than skating after Cohen left. “I was certainly surprised when I heard Sasha was interested in returning”, Nicks said. “To get a chance to teach someone like Sasha - most coaches would, and I certainly did”. So far, the defining performance of Cohen’s career occurred six years ago and lasted less than three minutes - the short programme at 2000 nationals. “I hope my time is now", Cohen said after overcoming the flu to win the 2006 US title, "and I hope it’s always".