U.S. figure skating championships: Sasha Cohen captures the attention on the women's side once again

Sasha Cohen invigorates the crowd at the U.S. figure skating championships with her short program. She is second against a field of younger foes heading into tonight’s free skate.

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Sasha Cohen invigorates the crowd at the U.S. figure skating championships with her short program. She is second against a field of younger foes heading into tonight’s free skate.

SPOKANE, Wash. — So this is what figure skating has been missing these past four years.

The Americans have been trying to find someone — anyone — to give the sport its glitz, glamour and spunk ever since Sasha Cohen went on hiatus.

Turns out, all they needed was the real thing.

Simply by stepping onto the ice late Thursday at the U.S. champion­ships, Cohen made American women's skating a happening again. Fans cheered and whistled like she was a rock star, and the number of camera clicks made it sound like a Hollywood premiere. Cohen delivered like a pro to finish second in the short program Thursday and kept herself in the mix for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team headed for Vancouver. The free skate is tonight.

"It was a very special performance for me (Thursday night)," Cohen said. "I came back because I missed it, and I love being here. I really, really appreciate the people that have come to care about me and cheer me on and just the personal struggles I've overcome to be here."

Less than a point separates leader Mirai Nagasu (70.06), Cohen (69.63) and Rachael Flatt (69.35). With only two Olympic spots available, Cohen will have to be perfect — or pretty close.

For all her talent and drive, the knock on Cohen has been her inability to keep it together when it matters most. She has yet to do clean short and long programs in the same major event, a fact she was reminded of Thursday.

"I know I've been training well, and I've done some really good longs in practice, which gives me confidence," she said. "I am aspiring to that, I'm hoping to. We'll see."

Besides, Cohen is enjoying proving people wrong.

There were, to put it mildly, a few skeptics when the Olympic silver medalist announced her comeback in May. Sure, the 25-year-old had been skating, headlining the "Stars on Ice" tour. But she had been out of the game since the 2006 world championships, an eternity in a sport where a few months on the competitive sidelines can leave you stale. When she pulled out of both Grand Prix assignments because of tendinitis, the chorus of doubters grew.

"I can definitely tell you, when I was injured and skating awful, you want to be here, but you are how you feel each day," Cohen said. "I believed in myself because I had some great moments and great days in training, and I was able to keep putting them together and get confidence enough to be here.

"Even my friends told me, 'No one thinks you're going.' Well, don't tell me that," she added. "I can't help what other people think. And it has been a while."

Cohen has always had a stubborn streak, and she loves a challenge. She left Rafael Arutunian and went back to John Nicks, her coach since she was 9 and the man who has always brought out the best in her.

She ignored the pain, training every day. Every inch of her upper body is toned and defined.

"She's very deceptive," Nicks said. "She looks like a petite little China doll, but you've got a very tough young lady."

The pressure at this event is crushing, the reward for years of hard work hanging in the balance. For some skaters, it was too much. Defending national champion Alissa Czisny was done after she splatted on her first jump. Former junior world champion Caroline Zhang admitted she came unglued watching everyone else. Ashley Wagner, 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes, even Flatt, to a degree — all had flaws.

Now imagine coming into this environment cold.

Instead of being a basket case, Cohen reveled in her moment.

"To me, the accomplishment is being here," Cohen said. "I would love to go to a third Olympics. But it's not the end-all in my life."

She got down to business, doing a solid triple lutz-double toe loop combination 19 seconds into her program. She tossed off a triple flip, a jump that has given her trouble.

As always, though, it was the show that sets Cohen apart. Her spirals were impressive, but she brought the house down with her forward Charlotte, which essentially has her gliding in the splits, her nose touching her shin.

As she began her footwork, she gave the fans in the front row a saucy little smile as if to say, "Missed me, didn't you?"

Late Saturday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the original dance segment and extended their lead to about 1½ points over Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto going into today's free dance.

European Championships: Carolina Kostner of Italy skated a clean and assured short program in Tallinn, Estonia, putting her in position to win her third European women's title. Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin won the ice dancing.

Fast Facts

U.S. figure skating championships

When/where: Through Sunday; Spokane (Wash.) Arena

TV : Today, 3 and 9 p.m., Sunday, 4 and 9 p.m.; Ch. 8

U.S. figure skating championships: Sasha Cohen captures the attention on the women's side once again 01/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 12:21am]

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