Successcan¬†come in a blinding flash of brilliance so sudden it shortens thebreath and makes the hairs on the neck stand on end, like a bolt of lightningon a summer night. So it was with Sarah Hughes when, at age 16, she won theOlympic gold medal in women's figure skating in Salt Lake City. ¬∂ Or successcan hang on the horizon for years, a distant rumble, a calm of potential beforethe anticipated storm, buffeted by winds that might blow it in abruptly orcarry it forever out to sea. ¬∂ This has been the course of Sasha Cohen, thenewest U.S. champion, a graceful 21-year-old Californian whose ethereal spinsand 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, nearlyupset--and certainly upstaged--Michelle Kwan at U.S. nationals. Cohen finishedsecond, her stunning performance tarnished by a late fall on a relativelysimple triple toe loop. But the experts were in agreement: America's next iceprincess had arrived.
Cohen had it all:elegance (her longtime coach, John Nicks, said she was incapable of putting herbody into an ugly position); spunk (at the opening ceremonies of the 2002Olympics, Cohen handed her cellphone to President Bush and asked him to sayhello to her Ukrainian-born mother, Galina, a former ballerina); andathleticism (at 16 Cohen already was working on a quadruple Salchow, which shelanded 10% to 15% of the time in practice). But injury, a penchant for marringher performances with falls and the redoubtable Kwan kept Cohen's ascendancy atbay.
After missing muchof 2001 with a back injury, Cohen finished second to Kwan at nationals threemore times between '02 and '05. She was also runner-up at worlds twice: behindJapan's Shizuka Arakawa in '04 and Russia's Irina Slutskaya (page 90) in '05.At the 2002 Olympics, Cohen finished fourth.
Something alwaysseemed to trip her up. Sometimes it came early in her program, sometimes itcame late. Sometimes she faltered on a difficult jump, sometimes on an easyone. But there was always something, a sudden loss of focus. Impossiblyflexible, effortlessly balletic, longing to step out of the shadows and becomethe star the sport needed and she believed she could be, Cohen changed coachesthree times in 2 1/2 years, going from Nicks to Tatiana Tarasova to RobinWagner and back to Nicks. Head case, her detractors said. Even fans wondered ifSasha's ship would ever come in.
And then it did,three weeks ago. At the 2006 nationals in St. Louis, with Kwan sidelined by agroin injury, Cohen broke through to win her first U.S. title. Whether it wasbecause of the new Code of Points scoring system (page 77), which plays toCohen's strengths, Kwan's absence or Cohen's own newfound maturity, she'd neverseemed more in control. Despite missing three days of training leading up tothe event with the flu, Cohen remained poised and relaxed all week. (The nightbefore the long program Cohen, an avid reader, was overheard discussing Iran'sresumption of its nuclear program at dinner with her mother and her agent, LeeMarshall.)
Cohen was freed,at last, from the suffocating need to be flawless, which is the downside ofcompeting against a nine-time national champion like Kwan. "A couple ofyears 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'velearned it's about your own performance and personal best."
The 199.18 pointsshe scored in St. Louis were, indeed, a personal best, and while Cohen wasn'tperfect--she two-footed a triple in her short program and stepped out of twotriple jumps in her long--she didn't fall, and she finished an impressive 28points ahead of runner-up Kimmie Meissner.
"Sasha'sbeginning to understand that perfection isn't something you should enter acompetition seeking," says Wagner, who coached Cohen for 12 monthsbeginning in December 2003. "Perfection's the enemy of performance. Withthe new judging system she can focus on building points instead of not makingmistakes. It releases her from the pressure of being perfect."
Whether Cohen canremember that lesson in Turin remains to be seen, but no one disputes that shehas all the tools to be Olympic champion. "Everyone's career has adifferent trajectory," Cohen said before winning nationals. "Everyoneevolves in different ways. So far in my career I haven't been in the rightplace at the right time. I've improved every year, but I just haven't put itall together yet. I plan to change that this year."
Her career pathhas taken several turns since the 2002 Games. The summer after herdisappointing finish in Salt Lake City--she stood third, ahead of Hughes, afterthe short program but two-footed a triple Lutz and fell on a triple toe loop inher long program--Cohen left Nicks and her native Southern California and movedwith her family to Newington, Conn., to train with the Russian-born Tarasova,who has guided Russian men to the last two Olympic titles (Ilia Kulik in 1998and Alexei Yagudin in 2002). "I used to train like a casual athlete,without a strategy behind it," Cohen says. "Tatiana was the first coachto explain that skating had to be your life. She taught me about off-icetraining, to train in the summer, how to taper before a competition. She taughtme how just driving into L.A. with friends takes energy away from yourtraining. Her philosophy is to work hard and rest hard."
Cohen startedlifting weights. She began running and working on her cardiovascular endurance.Today, at 5'2" and 95 pounds, she's built more like a gymnast than a waifand can leg press 400 pounds. "I feel now when I land my jumps, I'm landingon a column rather than the spaghetti noodles I skated on in 2000," Cohensays.
Her partnershipwith Tarasova worked well at first, and Cohen enjoyed the best internationalresults of her career. She won six of eight Grand Prix events she entered inthe 2002-03 season and the prestigious '03 Grand Prix Final. But Cohen'sinconsistency and Tarasova's poor health and emotional nature proved a volatilemix, eventually convincing Cohen that she needed to move on. "I loved theattention, the intensity, having three hours of coaching a day just devoted tome," she says. "But Tatiana began having some problems with her heart,and when I had a couple of bad performances she couldn't handle it."
Cohen abruptlyannounced her switch to Wagner on Christmas Eve 2003. Wagner, who coachedHughes, has an attitude and manner that made him a refreshing change fromTarasova. "Robin helped to rebuild me," Cohen says. "She got meback on track and taught me if you do something right in practice, you stillhave to do it again until it gets automatic and ingrained."
Cohen finishedsecond at both nationals and worlds in 2004, but she was unable to breakthrough to the top. Off the ice her life on the East Coast was increasinglyunsettled. For a while she commuted from Connecticut to the rink in Hackensack,N.J., where Wagner taught. She briefly lived with Wagner and her husband onLong Island. Finally she rented an apartment in New York City with her motherand younger sister, Natasha, now 17. Adding to her anxiety, her parentsseparated in October 2004--father Roger is a corporate lawyer--and Cohen againbegan suffering back problems, the result of a lifetime of layback spins. Sheeven had a hard time finding comfortable skating boots and blades."Basically, I was just lost," she says.
Her solution wasto return to California in December 2004 with her mother and sister and rejointhe 76-year-old Nicks, who was only too happy to take her back. "Mentally,she left as a teenager and came back as a young lady," Nicks says."She's more mature."
And more consumedwith attaining her ultimate goal of becoming Olympic champion. The sport hasits skating mothers and skating fathers--overbearing, willful parents--but,according to Nicks, Sasha is the driven one in the Cohen family. "It wasalways her," he says. "She's very strong-minded. Not impulsive, really.She's very respectful and well-behaved. She likes to have a say in decisions,which is fine. The one problem I have now is Sasha's overintensity. She'sfixated on her competitive year. At times I think she should go out and have agood time, but all she wants to talk about now is skating. I'd like to see herthrottle back a little."
But there is nothrottling back when you are closing in on the Olympics and a dream that for solong has been in sight but out of reach. Every day Galina, with whom Sasha hasbought a house in Corona del Mar, makes a video of her daughter's practicesession, which Sasha later studies on her computer and critiques. She doesn'thave a boyfriend ("You're too picky," her sister tells her) and preferscooking at home to partying. "I don't go out much because I've learned thateverything takes its toll," Cohen says. "I want to be in bed at 10p.m., even on weekends. We act like we're retired. I get up early, put on myrobe, have a cappuccino and turn on the Food Network."
At her 21stbirthday party, on Oct. 26, Cohen went to bed while her guests were stillcelebrating in her home. Five days later she was invited to a Halloween party.She didn't have a costume, so Cohen told her sister, "I should just befabulous!" She then put on high heels and went as herself.
Still, she washome by 10. "I'm very focused on my goals," she says, her big browneyes shining with clarity.
Being herself andbeing fabulous: It's a simple combination that in Turin could finally enableSasha Cohen to achieve her biggest goal of all.
Get figure skating analysis from E.M. Swift during theGames at SI.com/olympics.
The impossibly limber Cohen has grown stronger, mentally and physically, aftera series of injuries and coaching changes.
An expanded panel of judges uses touch screens (below) to score routines on adizzying number of elements.