SPOKANE, Wash. -- John Nicks, Sasha Cohen's 81-years-young coach, summed up the evening best: "It was an extraordinarily good start, but it was only a start."
With just two Olympic berths up for grabs, 23 ladies, including three former winners of this event, took the ice Thursday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for the treacherous short program, where dreams can be blown to smithereens with a single fall.
Three of them separated themselves from the pack: Cohen, 25, making her first competitive start since finishing third in the 2006 World Championship; '08 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, 16, who had been all but written off after finishing fifth in this competition last year following a growth spurt; and 17-year-old Rachel Flatt, second at this competition last year and the only one of the favorites Thursday night to land a triple-triple combination.
For the record, Nagasu scored 70.06 points, Cohen 69.63 and Flatt 69.35 -- about one revolution of a sit spin separates them -- which puts the trio seven points clear of fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner and a full 13 points ahead of Christina Gao, who finished fifth. While those margins are not insurmountable in the free-skating portion of the competition, which will be held Saturday, it will require a meltdown by one of the three leaders for anyone behind them to catch up. And the way Cohen, Nagasu and Flatt skated -- nearly flawlessly -- a meltdown doesn't seem to be in the offing.
Curiously, no one came into the Nationals as the favorite. Defending champion Alissa Czisny, 22, had done little since finishing a disastrous 11th at the '09 Worlds, a performance she reprised Thursday when she fell on her opening combination and then doubled her planned triple flip, finishing seventh. Flatt, fifth last year at the Worlds, has been the most consistent lady for the U.S. the past two seasons, but lacks that special fizz that can bring a crowd to its feet, a summer stock player in a Broadway game.
Nagasu, who had switched to respected coach Frank Carroll this season, hadn't been on a podium since her breakthrough '08 U.S. win as a 14-year-old, and 19-year-old Wagner, the only U.S. woman to qualify for the prestigious Grand Prix Finals this season, where she finished fourth, hasn't won anything, anywhere since becoming a senior skater in '07. This was a supporting cast in search of a star.
Enter Cohen, the Olympic silver medalist in Turin, and U.S. champion in '06. She brought a buzz to Spokane that had been missing among the U.S. ladies since she stepped away from competitive skating nearly four years ago and started touring with Stars on Ice. Cohen announced her comeback last May, but after she missed the entire Grand Prix season with a calf injury, many doubted she'd even show up in Spokane. No one foresaw that she would show up in what appeared to be the best shape of her life.
"I was told if you're going to try this after being away for nearly four years, you need to be lighter and faster and stronger than ever before," Cohen said Thursday. "I came back because I missed it and missed being here. I just wasn't quite ready to say goodbye."
Clearly. Looking thinner and leaner than she had ever been before -- and she has always been slender -- Cohen landed a less-than-perfect triple lutz-double toe combination to open her program, followed by a stellar triple flip, the jump on which she had fallen during her first practice here on Wednesday.
Then it was two minutes of vintage Sasha: great spins, incredible flexibility and the best spiral sequence in the business. All conducted with an air of comfort and sureness that she's acquired from her years of performing on tour. The audience, which over the years has never really taken Cohen to its heart, gave her a long, warm standing ovation after the performance, welcoming her back. The sport, inarguably, has missed her.
Even her fellow competitors seemed to have stars in their eyes as they sat at the press conference with Cohen after the short program. Neither Nagasu nor Flatt had ever skated against her before. Flatt was just 13 when Cohen won her silver medal in Turin; Nagasu was 12.
"It's an honor to compete against her," Flatt said, fully aware that Cohen's presence could cost her a trip to Vancouver next month. Nagasu called Sasha "a skating icon," adding, "It's very impressive that after four years away she hasn't lost her competitive streak."
They made an appealing, interesting trio. Nagasu, refreshingly, has a pixilated quality about her and seems to say almost anything that pops into her head. Asked what gave her the idea she'd been written off by everyone, she said: "I'm not in my personal bubble all the time. I do have access to the Internet."
When someone inquired what she was feeling during her sparkling short program, she said, "It was like I was in outer space." Accused in the past of being out of shape and not training hard enough, she allowed she had benefited immensely from training with '09 World Champion Evan Lysacek. "Evan does his programs over and over, and I follow his example," she said.
It wasn't always so. This summer, when Nagasu was having a lackluster practice, Carroll, a taskmaster, threw her off the ice. The next day she came to the rink wearing a pair of angel's wings.
Flatt is an honors student, self-confident, consistent and, one suspects, on her way to an Ivy-League caliber education and a professional career in the profession of her choosing. This skating game is a temporary stop. Her triple-triple combination, and the fact that she stays on her feet, are the two arrows in her skating quiver.
But her spins are slow, her spiral sequence labored and she lacks the Wow factor that the very best women have. Nothing about Flatt's skating really jumps from the ice to the stands. Of course, that could change -- she's only 17. For now, though, whether her consistency is enough to get her to Vancouver really depends on what the other competitors do.
Then there is Cohen, who is clearly at peace with her decision to return to the rigors of the competitive sport, whether it gets her to her third Olympics or not. She has battled through an injury to her right calf and to her back. She has returned to training with Nicks, who has coached her since she was 9. And for a change she seems to be utterly enjoying the ride.
"Getting back to the Olympics is not the end-all of my life," she said after her performance. "I think I have more wisdom than the last time I was here. It's probably my last Nationals, and I love the support and positive energy I've been getting from people coming up to me and saying, 'We're glad to have you back.' As you get older, you don't take those things for granted."
And as certain memorable athletes get older, fans and grizzled sportswriters take them less for granted, too. Cohen is one such athlete. After spending most of her career in the shadow of the iconic Michelle Kwan -- Cohen finished second to her five times in the U.S. Championships -- this is her time to take the spotlight.
Whether she's able to hold off the two youngsters alongside her on Saturday and skate a clean long program -- which she was unable to do in Turin, costing her the gold -- remains to be seen.
"Ice is slippery, as we all know," she said with a wry smile. One thing is certain, though: Just about everyone's glad she's trying.