Sasha Cohen Dazzles Judges, Leads Pack

Sassy, saucy and supremely confident, Sasha Cohen is no longer in anyone else's shadow. At the biggest event of all, no less: women's figure skating at the Olympics.

Going last in Tuesday night's short program, after overwhelming favorite Irina Slutskaya had dazzled and Japanese heavyweights Shizuka Arakawa and Fumie Suguri had impressed, Cohen shone brighter than them all.

So luminous was her work in the rink that she put the United States in position for its third straight gold medal.

"I think about it every day, of course. A couple of times a day," Cohen said, smiling almost shyly. "Like, 'Oh, that would be so nice to take one of those home.' "

Michelle who?

Cohen scored 66.73 points, edging Slutskaya by a mere .03 points. Arakawa, the 2004 world champion, had 66.02 points. The razor-thin margin means Cohen will need to be at her very best again in Thursday night's free skate if she wants to stand at the top of the podium.

Suguri was fourth and fellow American Kimmie Meissner was fifth, one of only two skaters to complete a triple-triple combination. Emily Hughes, added to the U.S. team nine days ago after Michelle Kwan withdrew with a groin injury, made an impressive debut in her first major international event. Hughes — yes, sister of THAT Hughes — finished seventh with the 2002 Olympic champion cheering her on.

"It's going to be like starting over. Like the short didn't really count. Back to square one," Cohen said. "It's kind of like the old system. Anybody in the top three can win."

Cohen is one of the most beautiful skaters ever to hit the ice, with the grace and elegance of a ballerina and the athleticism to pull off tough tricks. But she's never even been the headliner in her own country, relegated to being the supporting player to Kwan's star.

Even with Kwan out of the Olympics, Cohen got little attention. All the talk centered on Slutskaya, the two-time world champion who triumphed over heart disease, and the Japanese. Even Hughes got more ink.

Part of it is Cohen's resume. She's had plenty of opportunities to win, but always fell short. She was runner-up to Kwan four times at the U.S. championships, and was the silver medalist at the last two world championships. In Salt Lake City, she was third after the short program but dropped to fourth with a sloppy free skate.

"Salt Lake was very different for me," she said. "I was a different person, a different athlete. I've learned and matured so much and learned how to handle the nerves a bit better since then. I've just evolved."

So much so she has the makings of a champion. Not bad for an old lady.

Cohen had an ice pack wrapped around her right leg, but said it was only there for "maintenance."

"I'm getting older," the 21-year-old said. "I'm the grandma leading the U.S. team."

Cohen's program was far from perfect, and it showed in technical marks lower than both Slutskaya and Arakawa. The landing of her double axel was curvy, and she had to fight to save it. The takeoff on her triple lutz could have been cleaner, but she made up for it in her connecting steps, transitions and spirals.

And no one sells a program better. Skating to "Dark Eyes," a Russian folk song, she was expressive for the entire program. She made eye contact with all of the judges, as if she was skating just for them.

When she stood at the edge of the rink, just before starting her straightline footwork, she gave a little shimmy of her shoulders and the crowd roared. When her music stopped, Cohen threw her fist in the air and grinned.

"She's been very much more mature and trained very hard," said John Nicks, her coach since she was 12 — with a few interruptions here and there. "Tonight was a good start. It was a very good start. But it was only a start."

Slutskaya and Arakawa won't simply give Cohen the gold.

Doctors weren't sure Slutskaya would even skate again when she became ill two years ago, but she defied the odds and has been virtually unbeatable since she returned. Now she's looking to make history: the first Russian woman to win Olympic gold and complete an unprecedented Russian sweep of the titles.

Her performance to Liszt's peppy "Totentanz" was so perfectly in unison with the music that her spins matched the crescendos. She was so quick, she could have left the short-trackers who share the Palavela in the dust.

Her countrymen in the crowd waved flags, shouted "ROS-SI-YA! ROS-SI-YA!" and erupted in a loud ovation for her marks. Slutskaya smiled, and shook the fingers she had crossed for luck.

Arakawa's jumps were smooth, and her spins were high-level and high-quality. But it was her spirals that were show-stoppers. In one, she pulled her leg up to the side in the splits position. Then she let go and the leg stayed completely still, a testament to her superior strength and muscle control.

"I think I can do much better than this, but I don't want to make my expectations too high," the 2004 world champion said. "I just want to stay relaxed."