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Sasha slips to silver Japan's Arakawa comes out on top, making Cohen-Slutskaya rivalry moot

The pressure was mounting in warm-ups and became too much to bear by the time she attempted her first combination.

Sasha Cohen convinced herself that she had found peace moments before beginning her long program in the 2006 Winter Olympics, but she looked like a nervous wreck.

Then she became a train wreck.

Cohen won the silver medal Thursday in women's figure skating, the Olympics' marquee event, after spending four years digging for gold. It slipped away when she fell on her opening jump, vanished for sure when she stumbled on her second. She was so convinced medals of all colors disappeared that she took off her dress in the locker room.

"I was disappointed," Cohen said. "I'm in a little bit of shock. I had problems with my two jumps during warm-up, so it wasn't a surprise. I definitely did not think I was going to win a medal. It was a nice surprise."

Thursday's free skate figured to be a head-to-head matchup between Cohen and Russia's Irina Slutskaya, but Japan's Shizuka Arakawa won gold while skating to the same score Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti performed in Opening Ceremonies.

Arakawa, the 2004 world champion, was the only one of the top skaters who remained upright throughout her program. Slutskaya also fell, took the bronze and stormed out of the kiss-and-cry area after seeing her scores.

It was a disaster for the 21-year-old Cohen, who was looking to become an Olympic princess. Instead, she fell, literally, into a long line of American hopefuls who blew golden opportunities. Cohen rushed to change into her dress, smiled graciously on the podium and collected the silver.

"It was like, 'Oh, that's nice,' " she said.

Nice?

>Perhaps too intense

Cohen wasn't looking for nice. She's an intense athlete, perhaps too intense, who came to Italy looking for gold. Things were leaning that way. Teammate and rival Michelle Kwan withdrew shortly after the Games began after suffering a groin injury. Cohen won the short program in a virtual dead heat with Slutskaya. She was in good position once again before crumbling when it mattered most.

The first jump is often the most difficult because it sets up the program. Once it's out of the way, pressure is usually removed and the skating takes over. By then, Cohen already knew she was in trouble. She took two spills during a six-minute warm-up and appeared shaky before crash-landing her first triple lutz.

"I was probably not nervous but apprehensive after missing the jumps in practice," she said. "I stayed in the moment, and I got into the music. The jumps just weren't there."

Cohen fell on her backside and junked the rest of the combination, which called for a double toeloop and a double loop. The nervous crowd of 6,200 in Palavela, hoping for a dramatic Cohen showdown with Slutskaya, groaned in disbelief. It was if they didn't want to watch but couldn't help themselves.

There was no helping Cohen. The fans' pain intensified moments later when she stumbled badly while attempting a triple flip. She survived the rest of the program, wowed the crowd with a triple toeloop-triple salchow combination and was greeted with warm applause, a bogey clap, on a night she wanted to bring the people to their feet.

Uggh.

"It was heartbreaking," two-time gold medalist Katarina Witt said. "After [the second jump], she was so upset that she nailed everything out of anger. I always say that there are world-class skaters, and there are champions. It really breaks my heart."

It broke Cohen's heart, too, but perhaps it should have been expected. Cohen built a reputation for failing to skate two clean programs in a row. She faltered in the long program four years ago in Salt Lake City. She was in position to capture U.S. Figure Skating titles in 2003 and 2004 but fell back. It happened again in the 2004 World Championships.

"I've done some great longs," she said, "just not in the places and times I've wanted to."

Cohen won the U.S. title last month in St. Louis, but that title came with an asterisk because Kwan, who won eight straight national titles and nine overall, didn't participate. Cohen skates at a higher level than Kimmie Meissner, 16, and Emily Hughes, 17. They are expected to be the future of U.S. figure skating.

Meissner, whose parents grew up in the Buffalo area before settling outside Baltimore, also stumbled through her first jump and finished a respectable sixth in her first Olympics. Hughes, who replaced Kwan, was seventh.

This fallfest was about Cohen's quest for the most prestigious title in her sport.

>Seize the moment

Four years ago, Sarah Hughes won the gold and showed what can happen when a skater frees herself of expectations and simply enjoys the experience. She was considered the third-best American skater going into the 2002 Olympics, barely a medal contender, but she left as the princess of the Winter Games.

Cohen tapped every resource she could find to help her overcome the final, most important hurdle. She has had three coaches over the past 2 1/2 years, less an indictment of them and more her effort to become a complete skater. She was terrific Tuesday; nobody knew whether it signaled domination or doom.

The question was whether she could handle the pressure, which is immense at the Olympics. She recently read a book by ex-UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, in which the Wizard of Westwood emphasized living for the present and not getting bogged down by the past and future. You know, seize the moment.Her performance Thursday was hardly what she had in mind.

"Ultimately, it's four minutes of my life," she said. "I've grown so much as an athlete and as a person. I've grown stronger. I should be proud of that. I'll have to take those things with me with whatever else I do."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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