Sasha Cohen is saving the drama for the women's final. A day after making the unusual decision to skip both of her practices, the U.S. champion spoiled a budding soap opera when she showed up for her final warm-up at the Palavela on Thursday morning.

Cohen looked strong and fit, doing a light run-through of her program before working on her triple jumps, spirals and spins. She struggled with her triple flip, falling on one and stepping out of another before landing a clean one. Her spins were consistent and her spirals were solid — certainly not the look of someone struggling with an injury.

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She left the ice briefly late in the session, but it appeared to be for an equipment problem, and she finished the practice by working on her footwork and presentation.

"We have an understanding of what is good for her and what produces good results," John Nicks, Cohen's coach, said after she skipped her practices Wednesday.

And Cohen is certainly hoping for a good result Thursday night, one that would bring the United States its third straight Olympic gold medal. Cohen won the short program, but her lead is razor-thin.

She's ahead of two-time world champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia by only .03 points. Former world champion Shizuka Arakawa trails Cohen by .71.

"I was just looking at the points, and boy, is it close," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 gold medalist and coach of Japan's Miki Ando, who is eighth. "I think they all have a chance."

Cohen has a reputation of being as headstrong as she is talented. She has had plenty of chances like these, only to fall apart and come up short. The 2003 and 2004 national championships. The 2004 world championships. The Salt Lake City Olympics.

Each time she went into the free skate with a chance to win. And each time she faltered.

She went to the 2003 national championships as the strongest skater in the world, but wound up third after doing only five clean triple jumps and falling once. She won the short program at the 2004 nationals, but botched two jumps in the free and finished second.

She also won the short program at the 2004 worlds, but a couple of shaky landings and a two-footed triple salchow spoiled her shot at gold.

And at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Cohen was in third after the short program but dropped to fourth — off the medals podium — with a sloppy free skate.

She did win her first national title this year, but it was like a pro competing against amateurs. Michelle Kwan skipped nationals with a groin injury, and teenagers Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes are nowhere near her class.

"I was a different person, a different athlete," Cohen said of her past failures. "I've learned and matured so much and learned how to handle the nerves a bit better since then. I've just evolved."

And figured out what works for her.

Cohen ditched Nicks after Salt Lake City and headed to the East Coast, working first with Tatiana Tarasova and then Robin Wagner. Both helped her grow as a skater, but neither could give her a champion's heart.

It wasn't until she returned to California and Nicks in late 2004 that Cohen grew up. While she admits she dreams about a gold medal "a couple of times a day," it's no longer the only thing driving her.

"It's not always about being the most talented, it's about sticking it out. This sport rewards the tough people," Cohen said. "I've been working really hard at staying strong and being positive. That and enjoying every moment of the process."

Even the unusual ones.

Nicks said Cohen skipped her practices Wednesday because she was tired. She didn't get back to the athletes' village until late Tuesday night, and then had trouble falling asleep. When she finally did, it was a fitful rest.

"I thought she should practice," Nicks said. "Then, when I heard of her rest issues, I thought she shouldn't do it."

And no, she's not injured. Cohen had her right leg wrapped Tuesday night and wore an ice pack after the short program, but Nicks said it's nothing unusual.

"She has occasional muscle problems and uses a lot of ice," he added, dispelling questions about a possible groin injury. "There is nothing untoward. She has a few aches, a few pains, as we all do when we get older."

She hopes to have something much better soon: an Olympic gold medal.

"Knowing Sasha, it's probably a little more of an attitude of, `OK, this is going to be my Olympics,'" Heiss Jenkins said. "You have to think that way. It isn't conceit, it's confidence."