Silver Lining

March 06, 2006
March 06, 2006

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March 6, 2006

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Silver Lining

Her gold medal chances ended with two early stumbles, but the way Sasha Cohen bounced back gives her something to build on

It was so verydifferent from the Salt Lake City Games. She was different too. Yet here shewas the day after her roller-coaster free skate, sipping a cappuccino in a cafeon Via Nizza, just down the street from the arena where she had won her silvermedal, struggling with that same gnawing feeling of disappointment she'dexperienced after finishing fourth in 2002. "In Salt Lake, I was devastatednot to win a medal," Sasha Cohen said last Friday, her huge brown eyeslocked in a thousand-yard stare. "I cried and cried and cried. I was goingto be Tara Lipinski. I would win, retire, go to college and move onto the nextthing, being an actress or modeling or some other career. My focus has changedso much since then."

This is an article from the March 6, 2006 issue Original Layout

She had talked allseason about focusing on the journey and not on the medal it might bring. Andthis conversation was part of that: deconstructing yet another flawed longprogram, one that had kept her from winning the gold in Turin. To those whowould criticize her for again falling in a big competition--she'd already facedsome of the negativity while making the rounds of the morning talk shows on theday after her event--Cohen was surprisingly passive, measured and composed.Take your best shots, she was thinking. Go wild. But don't expect me to agreewith you.

She didn't weepafter the competition, as did the favorite, bronze medalist Irina Slutskaya,who then feigned cheerfulness for the press. She didn't cry herself to sleepafter returning to her apartment on Thursday night. "I took a bath, washedmy hair, blow-dried it, took half a sleeping pill and went to bed," Cohensaid. "I've learned not to attack myself. It doesn't do any good. You canhave regrets, but I don't know what I would have changed. Ice isslippery."

That much wasclear. Just 44 hours after what had been probably the greatest short-programcompetition in Olympic history, the top women in the world looked as if theywere performing on in-line skates in the free skate. Only 24-year-old ShizukaArakawa of Japan withstood the withering pressure, and even she skated withless brilliance than she is capable of, landing only five triples and none ofher vaunted triple triple combinations. In fact, none of the top nine skatersattempted a triple triple, a power outage remarkable to anyone who'd watchedthem knocking off those combinations in practice with no more effort than ittakes to pluck petals from a rose.

The evening'strain wreck started with Cohen, who after her near-perfect short held a lead of.03 over Slutskaya and .71 over Arakawa. Cohen, 21, had put up clean shortsbefore in major competitions only to follow them with flawed longs--a patternshe was eager to break.

Cohen, however,was competing at less than 100%. She had strained her groin slightly in a fallin practice after winning her first U.S. nationals in mid-January, thenaggravated the injury while polishing her straight-line footwork just beforeleaving for the Games. In Italy she had daily physical therapy and trained withher legs wrapped. "Maintenance," she answered when asked about the icepack on her upper thigh after the short. But it became clear that her injurywas going to be a problem when she passed up both practices on the day beforethe long program to give her groin a rest.

Still, Cohen hadbeen jumping well all week, and hopes were high that this, finally, would bethe competition in which she would put it all together. The first sign oftrouble, however, came in the warmup at Palavela arena, when she got crooked inthe air while attempting a triple loop and slammed to the ice. Shaken, she thenstepped out of a triple flip.

On her openingtriple Lutz combination, Cohen didn't get enough height and fell. Her next jumpwas a triple flip combination, and the nightmare start continued when shestumbled and put both hands on the ice. This was getting ugly. Her next jumpwas the triple loop, the one on which she'd splatted during the warmups. Adefining moment. She landed the loop, righting the ship. "I don't know howI was able to come back after that start, but I didn't let doubts come into mymind," she said. "I kept believing and thinking positivethings."

She then beganconcentrating on and losing herself in the music, the soundtrack from Romeo andJuliet by Nino Rota. Taking one element at a time, she landed five cleantriples in the final 3 1/2 minutes of her program--as many as Arakawa wouldland. It was about as well as she can skate, which is about as well as anyonecan skate. "Turin will be a bittersweet memory for me," Cohen said lastFriday. "I'm definitely disappointed, but I'm definitely proud of myselftoo. To go out and persevere.... I'm tougher than I thought. How you deal withadversity is what defines your character."

The 27-year-oldSlutskaya, skating last and bidding to become the first Russian woman to winthe Olympic gold medal (and to complete a Russian sweep in the four skatingdisciplines), dealt with her adversity the opposite way--after falling on atriple loop midway through her program, she mentally checked out once it wasclear she wouldn't win the gold. A powerful jumper and two-time world championwho was the silver medalist in Salt Lake City, Slutskaya landed only fourtriple jumps in her program.

The beneficiary ofthese mishaps was Arakawa, the 2004 world champion, who had only finished thirdat the Japanese championships in December. But Japan has depth in women'sskating that no country has enjoyed since the early 1990s, when the U.S. teamof Kristi Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan finished 1-2-3 at theworlds. Any Japanese skater who survives the pressure of the nationalchampionships and makes the Games is well-steeled for competing underpressure.

No Japanese skaterhad ever won an Olympic gold. Arakawa carried the additional load of beingtouted as the potential savior of her country's efforts in Turin, where theJapanese contingent was 0-for-Italy just eight years after winning 10 medalswhen hosting the Games in Nagano. Arakawa was on that 1998 team; she finished13th and earned notice as a jumping prodigy. But her career then started tobackslide. Arakawa didn't qualify for the world team again for five years andwas passed over for the Olympic team in 2002. She finished eighth in the worldin '03 and decided she was going to retire after the '04 season. Arakawa wasalready going on job interviews when, unexpectedly, she won the world title inMarch 2004, becoming the first woman to land a triple Lutz--triple toe--doubleloop combination at a world championships. (She also did another triple triplecombination, thus completing 14 revolutions in 30 seconds.) Japanese skatingfederation officials, who had always treated Arakawa as an afterthought, nowinsisted she stay in the sport through the Turin Games.

Denied heropportunity to go out on top and conflicted about her future in the sport,Arakawa had a disastrous 2005 season, winding up ninth at the worlds. But herpoor showing in Moscow served as a wake-up call. "Afterward I saw a glintin her eyes that had been missing," recalls Shinsuke Kobayashi of the KyodoNews Service. "She told me, 'I can't finish like this.' Something ignitedinside her."

In November 2005Arakawa changed coaches, leaving the mercurial Tatiana Tarasova to train underNikolai Morozov in Simsbury, Conn. Under his guidance she rediscovered thetechnical brilliance she had exhibited in '04. At practices in Turin she wowedaudiences with her array of triple triple double combinations, which once in awhile she'd upgrade to a surreal triple triple triple just for fun.

Ultimately,though, she didn't need the big guns. Mistakes by Cohen and Slutskaya, combinedwith Arakawa's stylish, powerful, error-free performance, turned what had beena close competition into a rout. Arakawa outscored Slutskaya in the longprogram by more than 10 points and Cohen by almost nine. "I cannot believeit," she said of her win, which finally fulfilled the quest started byMidori Ito 14 years earlier to bring an Olympic skating title to Japan.

When asked abouther plans, Cohen made it clear she'll take another shot at gold in 2010 atVancouver. "Arakawa is proof that perseverance does pay off," she saidover her cappuccino. "Maybe I'm a slow learner, but I'm still learning. AndI find if I'm not skating, training and competing, I don't have the same senseof purpose and accomplishment in my life. I don't feel like ending mycareer.

"I'm stillprocessing what happened last night. It is a silver medal. It's heavy." Ahint of a wistful smile crossed her lips. "Everyone looks for those magicmoments like Tara had in Nagano or Sarah [Hughes] had in Salt Lake. But yourealize maybe they only happen for some people. Not for everyone."

Gone are thechildish dreams of becoming an actress, a diva, a legend. She's already talkingabout new ways to prepare, of cutting back on weight training and doing morePilates in order to head off the injuries that have plagued her. It's all partof being an Olympic athlete. Part of a journey she's learned to love.

SI writers pick their favorite moments from the Turin Olympics

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (TOP)SLIP-SLIDING AWAY - When Cohen fell on the first two jumps of her long program,she again squandered the edge she'd gained in the short.PHOTOPhotographs by Heinz Kluetmeier[Seecaption above]PHOTOPhotographs by Heinz KluetmeierPOWERGLIDE - Cohen kept her composure and won the silver, improving two places fromher showing in Salt Lake City.PHOTOPhotographs by Heinz KluetmeierUPS ANDDOWNS - Arakawa (top) was solid if not spectacular, while Slutskaya dropped tothird after failing to land a triple loop.PHOTOPATRICK B. KRAEMER (SLUTSKAYA)[Seecaption above]