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Pressure builds for Sasha

TURIN, Italy -- Not that she needs more pressure, but Sasha Cohen should know that the United States hasn't been shut out of a figure skating medal since 1948. And not that it matters, but there's a shipload of money out there for an American, any American, that companies can attach to the 2006 Winter Olympics.

The United States was tied with Germany for the most gold medals after Sunday's competition, but let's be honest. The Americans have been butchering the Olympics for more than a week. The likes of Bode Miller and Johnny Weir have become myths at the Winter Games, replaced by unknowns such as Ted Ligety and Seth Wescott.


Other than the totally stoked snowboard dudes and the speedskaters, the Olympics has largely been a bust for the underachieving Yanks. The women's hockey team figured to skate into the gold medal game without any problems, but there it was playing for the bronze today. The U.S. men's team? Like Weir, there's a good chance it will go home fantasizing about a medal.

Heck, Miller can barely finish a race let alone win one.

So there's plenty riding on Cohen when the women's figure skating opens with the short program Tuesday. Cohen has been mysteriously silent and noticeably absent since she arrived in Turin 10 days ago. She has spent most of her time in Italy training in Courmayeur, a mountain community about two hours north of Turin near the French border, concentrating on her programs and avoiding the attention.

She'll meet the international media today. Soon, we'll see whether America has a new ice princess and Olympic hero. At this point, the United States is desperate for one.

Michelle Kwan's withdrawal from the Winter Games might have signaled an opportunity for Cohen, but the reality is she had the better chance of capturing gold regardless of Kwan's health. Cohen won the U.S. Figure Skating while suffering from the flu. She's tailored her programs to the new scoring system, in which points are accumulated rather than taken away from a perfect 6.0. She's a more mature skater and a more mature woman than she was four years ago.

In the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, she was a 17-year-old rookie trying to find her way at the Olympics. We remember her, star struck and innocent, calling her mother on her cell phone during Opening Ceremonies while standing next to President Bush. Everybody was fascinated with Kwan's quest to win gold, but Sarah Hughes won after the performance of her life. Shortly thereafter, Hughes all but vanished from the national stage.

Cohen, the most athletic of the three, would embrace the sequined spotlight but hasn't quite become an international darling. She was third after the short program in Salt Lake but she fell while trying to land a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. She stumbled off the podium, finishing fourth. Simply, it wasn't her time.

"Four years ago, I came into my first major international event being very nervous, not really understanding training and how to handle international competition," she said upon her arrival. "Of course, I wanted to win. I was going to win the Olympics and that was it. I'm coming in a much more experienced athlete. I'm going into this to enjoy it, soak it up and have a great time because that's when I skate my best."

Cohen is an intense competitor, but she's learned plenty from Kwan over the past few years. She's trying to appreciate the work required to win without becoming immersed with the idea of winning. There's a difference. She says it doesn't matter where she finishes so long as she skates her best, but you can't help but believe it's her way of distancing herself from expectations.

And the pressure is mounting.

Cohen has landed quadruple jumps in her career, but she's not expected to attempt one during these Games. She's adhering to the scoring system and plans seven triple jumps, one double axel in the long program. Of course, there's also the skate-over-head spin that makes her look like 6 o'clock. She's hoping it will be enough to beat Russian favorite Irina Slutskaya. Hughes proved what can happen on a given night.

You'll likely be seeing more athleticism from Western New York's granddaughter, Kimmie Meissner, and more elegance and technical skating from Cohen. Emily Hughes might look like her sister, but she doesn't skate like her. This competition is about Cohen's quest to win gold, as it was Kwan's four years ago.

It can be a lonely existence, a burden, but with success comes riches. Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi and German Katarina Witt capitalized on their Olympic performances. The United States is desperate for a face, and Cohen can financially set herself up for life while pulling away from Kwan's shadow.

"There are good times, and there are bad times," she said. "You have to deal with what life gives you. For me, it's never been an issue. It has been about my performance and staying confident. Ultimately, I have to shift my focus away from other people and onto myself."

Well, the focus is on her now. She's confident and ready, and the world is ready for her. She's here. In a few days, we'll see whether she's arrived.


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