SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Eyebrows raised when Sasha Cohen announced last spring that she was coming back. When she had to withdraw from her Grand Prix assignments, the news drew smirks.Gggggg
She wasn’t really going to come back after almost four years away, was she? If she did make it to nationals, would she be any good? Could she hold her own against skaters nearly a decade younger? Was this all a show?
Oh, it was a show all right. The best one the United States has seen since the last time Cohen laced up her skates.
“Looking back at my track record, I know I train hard, I try my best, I’m a fighter. Every time I go out there, I give it all I have,” Cohen said after answering the skeptics with a performance in Thursday night’s short program that has her in second place at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
“I came back because I missed it and I love being here,” she added. “I really, really appreciate the people that have come to care about me and cheer me on and just the personal struggles I’ve overcome to be here. That gives me a lot of faith and confidence in my skating.”
Less than a point separates leader Mirai Nagasu, Cohen and Rachael Flatt, and the knock on Cohen has always been her ability — or lack of — to hold it together when it matters most. She has yet to do clean short and long programs in the same major event, and she will have to be perfect, or pretty darn close to it, to earn one of the two Olympic spots.
“It was a good start, an extraordinarily good start,” Cohen’s longtime coach John Nicks said. “But that’s all it was. The rest of the job has to be done Saturday.”
Cohen hasn’t skated competitively since the 2006 world championships, and it’s no secret the Americans have missed her. They haven’t won a medal at worlds since she went on hiatus, and fared so poorly last year the United States has only two spots at the Vancouver Games. That’s only happened one other time since 1924.
Better yet, Cohen’s mere presence at an event makes it a happening, like the A-list star who makes a small-budget indie film a must-see. There was a buzz in the arena usually reserved for a final, and the click of dozens of camera shutters could be heard the minute she came into view. Her crimson dress with the beautiful lace bodice looked more couture than costume.
Though Cohen said she had some nerves, she didn’t look it, singing along to the Britney Spears’ song on the arena’s PA system as she waited for her name to be called. And when her “Espana Cani” music started, she was all business. Her triple lutz-double toe loop combination was solid, and she tossed off her triple flip with ease, something she wasn’t always able to do.
As always, though, it’s the show that sets Cohen apart.
Headlining the “Stars on Ice” tour during her break has only sharpened her performance skills, and her component scores — the old artistic mark — were the highest of the entire field. Her spirals are, if possible, even more impressive than before, and the audience probably would have been happy just to see those. She did a forward Charlotte, extending her leg so her body is in the full splits and her upper body is touching her skating leg, that had the audience whooping and whistling.
And as she began her footwork, she gave the fans in the front row a saucy little smile as if to say, “Missed me, didn’t you?”
“I think it’s very impressive that even after four years, she hasn’t lost her competitive streak,” Nagasu said. “Just the ability to be able to pull together a performance even though she hasn’t competed this season shows she’s a skating icon.”
The crowd was on its feet well before her music finished. As she stood at center ice, soaking in the adoration, Nicks thrust his arms in the air.
“This is a really special time in my life,” she said. “I just wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye.”
While Cohen acknowledges her career is winding down, Nagasu’s might be cranking into gear.
After winning the national title as a 14-year-old in 2008, she fell into a funk driven by injuries, a growth spurt and ordinary teenage angst. But her skate Thursday reminded everyone of how dazzling she can be.
“I’m not really here skating thinking about the Olympics,” she said. “I’m here to prove to everyone and myself that I’ve got what it takes. I just want to make a better impression from last year.”
Her “Pirates of the Caribbean” program was as big a hit as any of the Johnny Depp versions, the kind of get-your-blood-pumping fun U.S. audiences haven’t seen since Michelle Kwan ruled the rink. Her jumps were so huge the judges had to look up to see her, yet they flowed like poetry.
Her spins were exquisite. The positions of her layback were spellbinding — Gumby’s got nothing on this girl — and she was so fast she was practically a blur. Yet she didn’t budge an inch, staying in the same tight little circle.
Nagasu switched to coach Frank Carroll in the spring, and his influence was all over her performance. She used every inch of her body, from the top of her head to the very tips of her fingers, and she said as much with her face as she did with her skates.
“She’s really skating well,” coach Frank Carroll said — high praise, considering he was threatening to kick her out of the rink in November when he didn’t like her reaction to a poor performance at Cup of China.
Asked what changed, Carroll said, “Believing that she can perform and have personality and hit the elements. Before, she was worried only about hitting the elements.”
Flatt, the runner-up the last two seasons, was one of only two women to do a triple-triple combination. But her spins were nowhere near as difficult as her jumps, and her layback was the main reason she was third behind Nagasu and Cohen.
“We’ll have to wait and see for the long program what happens,” Flatt said. “I’m sure it’ll be a great competition.”
With Cohen back, that’s guaranteed.