Sasha’s sassy short

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TURIN, Italy — 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 yesterday’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 tomorrow’s free skate if she wants to stand at the top of the podium.

Suguri was fourth and 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, sister of 2002 gold medalist Sarah 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 a supporting role 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. Her results have always fallen short of her potential. She was runner-up to Kwan four times at nationals, 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.”

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