She’s baaaaack! Cohen doesn’t look rusty in return
SPOKANE, Wash. – Sasha Cohen brought the buzz back to U.S. skating.
Looked pretty darned good doing it, too.
At her first competitive practice in almost four years, the reigning Olympic silver medalist did an effortless run-through of her short program Wednesday, reminding everyone – fans, media, even other skaters – why she remains the Americans’ biggest star. Not to mention the best hope for a medal at the Vancouver Olympics.
“It felt great to be out there on competitive ice,” Cohen said afterward in a text message. “I am really excited.”
She’s not the only one. The Americans, long the dominant force in women’s skating, have been searching for their next big star for three years now. Rachael Flatt, Mirai Nagasu, Ashley Wagner – they’re all very talented, bright and have good stories to tell. But they can’t command an audience like Cohen.
From the second she stepped onto the ice, wearing black leggings and a cherry-red tank top with a flower cutout on the back, there was an electricity in the arena that’s been missing since 2006.
“Directly when she steps on the ice, she sets herself apart,” said John Nicks, her longtime coach. “I’ve worked with her since she was 11 years old. That’s 14 years, so I’m biased, you really shouldn’t ask me. I just think she’s the best-looking skater around.”
Despite it being the middle of the day, at least a thousand fans were at Spokane Arena to watch her practice. The ice at practice sessions is normally as crowded as the airspace around O’Hare on a Friday afternoon, but when Cohen began her program, the other five skaters drifted back to the boards to watch.
“She’s something different,” Nicks said. “Her coming to this competition adds enormous interest.”
Ratcheted up the level of the competition, too. For only the second time since 1924, the Americans qualified for just two spots at the Olympics, and there are six or seven skaters who could claim them here, including three national champions.
The women’s competition begins Thursday with the short program. The final is Saturday.
“Stay on her feet,” Nicks said when asked what Cohen has to do to make her third Olympic team. “The difference I think between her and the other young ladies, she’s got this vast experience. Two previous Winter Olympics, goodness knows how many nationals, that experience will stand her in good stead, I think.”
Cohen hasn’t competed since the 2006 world championships, a long layoff in a sport where even a few months on the sidelines can make you go stale. But she was on the ice as the headliner for “Stars on Ice,” and months of doing shows night after night has clearly enhanced her already impressive performance skills. You could sell tickets just to watch the spins and spirals, and she skated with such ease it was as if her feet weren’t even touching the ice.
But Cohen will need more than pretty moves to win, and she showed she has the tough tricks, too.
She did the double axel and all of her triples with flow and security. She did fall on the triple flip in the run-through of her program, but it looked good in the air and she might have been thrown off because of how close she was getting to the boards. Her triple lutz-double toe loop combination was beautiful, and while she had to fight for the landing of the double axel in the run-through, she did hold onto it.
Afterward, she ran through her jumps again, landing them with such grace and quiet that, had you taken your eyes off of her for a second, you’d never even know she’d left the ice. She also showed great speed and endurance throughout the entire practice, and appeared so relaxed she may as well have been at her rink back home.
“There are different pressures, there are competitive pressures. She hasn’t gotten marked like this lately, she hasn’t been on warmups with other great American skaters,” Nicks said. “Sometimes it’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t do it for three or four years, and you can still do it.”
Of course, this was just practice and the knock on Cohen has always been holding it together when the stakes are highest. She has yet to do clean short and long programs in the same major event, costing herself who knows how many titles.
But being in a show can only help her there, too. There’s no time for stage fright in a busy show schedule.
“It’s a substantial challenge,” Nicks acknowledged. “I’ve always felt that she has the ability to do it, and perhaps the words are sooner rather than later, and we hope it’s sooner.”
Besides, the 25-year-old Cohen is older now and more mature. It was her decision to return, and she’s already had to overcome several challenges just to get here. She missed both of her Grand Prix events with a calf injury, and returned to Nicks full-time in December after beginning her comeback with Rafael Arutunian.
“To be accurate, when I saw her in September, the latter part of September, I had a great concern whether she would make it or not. Things were not going too well,” said Nicks, who has remained Cohen’s adviser even when she worked with other coaches.
“But the last four or five weeks, she has practiced intensely. Harder almost than she’s ever done before,” Nicks said. “You saw it. Her skating is just so beautiful and so different form the other very, very good skaters.”