Still Waiting for Sasha Cohen

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It remains just beyond her reach, sometimes no more than a few deep breaths or a slip of a skate blade away. The perfect competition that will define Sasha Cohen's career continues to elude her, even through her most successful season.

That she possesses breathtaking grace and astounding flexibility is undeniable. That she can float in the air and land with hardly a flutter and that she can spin like a blur are givens. She displayed bits of those qualities in winning at Skate Canada, Trophee Lalique and the Grand Prix Final this season, an enviable record.

But Cohen, 18, hasn't blended those elements thoroughly or often enough to have skated flawlessly twice at the same event -- much less three times, as will be required to win the world figure skating championship.

Not until she finds the strength of will and body to create those perfect performances will she get the affirmation she craves, that she can be the best in the world instead of merely embodying a world of promise.

"Twenty-four hours a day I think about this," said Tatiana Tarasova, the renowned Russian coach who accepted Cohen as a student last summer at her Connecticut rink. "Sasha works hard. She has a lot of questions for me. She wants to change. She wants to go up, and I think she's ready, but who knows?"

Because Cohen thought her skating wasn't improving after she finished fourth at the Salt Lake City Olympics and last year's World Championships, she dropped her longtime coach, John Nicks, and moved from Laguna Niguel to train with Tarasova. Her parents and sister moved too, although her father, Roger, often returns to California to attend to his law practice.

They made the move willingly, but the change of skating scenery hasn't led to that first faultless competition.

"It seems to be kind of out there," Cohen said. "It's something Tatiana and I have been working on. I've narrowed my focus to each element, but I'm still not there yet.

"I'm going to need it to happen at worlds, and that's going to mean a lot of hard work ... and to be mentally strong."

The women's event begins today at the MCI Center with the qualifying round, worth 20% of the final score. The short program, worth 30%, is scheduled for Friday, with the long program finale on Saturday.

Cohen was fourth in her first appearance at the World Championships last year. She was tied for second after the qualifying round but ranked fifth in the short program and fourth in the long program, finishing fourth overall. That came a month after the Olympics, where she had been second after the short program but faltered in the long program and dropped to fourth.

She believed poor conditioning contributed to her habit of fading as her programs went on, and that she couldn't get the kind of training time she needed in Southern California. Tarasova, who coaches Olympic champion and four-time world champion Alexei Yagudin, promised her concentrated attention and as much ice time as she could handle, ideal conditions for her to make that final step.

"Of course she is changed mentally, and she works more every day and longer," Tarasova said. "She does two times more every day than when we started.

"When we start, she was tired after 40 minutes on the ice. Now it's working, working, working."

Said Cohen: "Tatiana is very much like me. We're both very emotional people and sometimes we're a little impatient in that we want the best out of me and we want it right now."

Cohen believed she was on the verge of a breakthrough at the U.S. championships two months ago in Dallas, but she wobbled in the long program and finished a tearful third behind Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes. "It was difficult, having looked forward all year to nationals," she said of her reaction.

If Cohen is ever going to leap past her compatriots and supplant them atop the medal stand, now seems the ideal time.

Defending world champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia withdrew to be with her ailing mother, and Olympic gold medalist Hughes is mulling decisions about college and competitive skating while she rebounds from an early-season leg injury. Four-time world champion Kwan remains a formidable competitor, but Cohen is probably the only woman who has the grace, artistry and jumping ability to challenge her.

"I see every competition as hopefully an opportunity not to have any regrets," Cohen said of her expectations this week. "At the same time, the big thing I've learned the last two competitions is not to be worrying about anyone else and just worry about myself."

It will take no less than that this week to defeat the luminous Kwan, who ranks among the best all-time, and the scrappy Hughes, who proved her grit under pressure by rising from fourth after the short program to first at Salt Lake City.

Their three-way rivalry "pushes us and makes us stronger," Cohen said. "But I'm really looking at putting out my personal best because that's something that I haven't done this season .... They're very hard workers and have a good ethic in their training. They're good competitors, mentally strong and able to pull out good performances. Both have consistency going for them."

Consistency from one phase of the competition to the next will determine this year's champion. Consistency from one event to the next will determine Cohen's place in figure skating.

"I think what I've learned about the long program is to take one element at a time and attack each jump and have the competition be about myself, not 'I have to beat this person or that person,' " she said. "And it's about testing myself and seeing how far I can go."

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