- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Sasha Cohen is ready for her close-up.

So long, Michelle Kwan. Out of her way, Emily Hughes.

Much to the relief of NBC, the ladies figure skating portion of the Winter Olympics begins tonight — take that, “American Idol” — and Cohen will occupy center stage as America’s best female skater.

“I won’t lie,” she has said. “I love the attention.”

The only question now is what she will do with it. Cohn has been billed as the potential savior of the Olympics’ sagging TV ratings and the poor performance of U.S. athletes here. Like an ant that can lift hundreds of times its weight, Cohen is incredibly strong for someone who stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 95 pounds, but that’s still quite a load to bear.

“At this moment, I don’t feel a lot of pressure,” she told the media horde yesterday. “I want to have a great time out there and really enjoy it. Give it my all and go home feeling great about this whole experience. I’m not putting the pressure on myself to have to win or to be perfect. It’s about enjoying the process.”

Maybe she really believes that, or maybe it’s because the 21-year-old Californian is not favored by many to win the gold medal. Russia’s Irina Slutskaya is the consensus choice, followed by Japan’s Shizuka Arakawa.

As for the rest of the U.S. team, Kwan is back in the United States, shelved by injury again after the controversy over getting a special audition.

Hughes, 17, whose sister, Sarah, won the 2002 gold medal in Salt Lake City, was dramatically summoned off the bench. But she probably is not ready yet. For that matter, neither is the third and youngest member of the U.S. team, 16-year-old Kimmie Meissner.

Cohen is America’s latest golden girl — at least as of yesterday — with all the requisite perks, including the first-class diva treatment. She skipped the opening ceremony and lived and trained far from the main Olympic Village in a place called Courmayeur.

“It’s been beautiful,” she said. “It was very relaxing and great for training. But it’s nice to come back to the hustle and bustle and get it going again.”

If the size of the press horde was one affirmation of Cohen’s status as America’s glamour performer in the Games’ glamour event, another was the big, googly eyes of Shaun White. The loosey-goosey snowboarder has made his intentions regarding Cohen through the media, saying he hopes Cohen is impressed with his gold medal.

Asked whether she had heard about that, Cohen giggled and said she had not met him, “but I’ll probably see him at the closing ceremonies.”

Stay tuned. This could be a new reality series.

Cohen finished fourth in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, just behind Kwan, who won the bronze medal. But her claim to fame came during the opening ceremony, when she handed her cell phone to President Bush and asked him to speak to her mother, Galina.

Cohen said she has come a long way since then.

“I’ve learned a lot from the last time around,” she said. “I’ll take that experience and use it out there. You learn a lot about yourself. Competing, experience, training preparation. How to perform after you’ve trained for so long.”

Maybe the most important thing she learned was to forget about her old rival. Cohen didn’t just finish second four times to Kwan in the nationals from 2000 through 2005. She was practically obsessed with her.

“A couple of years ago, I thought, ‘Why doesn’t she retire?’ ” Cohen told Sports Illustrated. “Look how many nationals she has. Look how many world [titles] she has [five]. Give someone else a turn.”

Since then, Cohen said, she learned to focus more on herself. She also changed coaches three times in less than three years and moved back and forth from Connecticut to the West Coast six times. She was labeled flighty and unpredictable, but she is here.

In January, with Kwan out of the competition, Cohen won her first U.S. championship, beating Meissner and Hughes by a wide margin.

Cohen fell before her workout started yesterday, but she brushed that aside. It wasn’t her moment yet. That comes tonight.

“Having people in the audience, my performance just kind of boosts up,” she said. “And I skate at a much higher level. I feel like I’m one of those people that can skate off the energy [of the crowd]. I just do better. I love to perform.”

Sasha Cohen

Sport: Figure skating

Born: Oct. 26, 1984

Residence: Corona del Mar, Calif.

Olympics: 2002, 2006

Fun fact: Sasha is a Russian nickname for her given name, Alexandra. (Her full name is Alexandra Pauline Cohen.)

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