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Fate of Olympics rests at Cohen's feet

First, she will pose elegantly. After that, Sasha Cohen will proceed directly to graceful.

She will sweep across the ice, the whisper of an angel. She will wave her arms grandly, as if she is preparing to make a fair catch. She will leap into the air and spin. Then Cohen will attempt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the sagging interest.

She will glide in front of the judges, the kiss of a butterfly. She will tilt forward and lift her leg, as if it is the mast of a sailboat. She will twirl as the music swells. Then Cohen will pull out the heart paddles and try to revive the ailing ratings.

When you think about it, it's a fairly impressive routine.

Tonight, Sasha Cohen will try to save the Olympics.

In an Olympiad that has gone ker-plop, she is the last chance. These Games have been as bleak as the Italian sky. The stars keep going dark. Bode Miller has a hard time standing up. Michelle Kwan lasted until her luggage came out on the carousel, and she was gone. Apolo Ohno is just another guy with a funny beard. The only thing protecting the American hockey teams from embarrassment has been the awful ratings. If an athlete wants to be noticed on television, well, he or she had better try to get on American Idol.

Tonight, however, Sasha may shine.

If she does, nothing else matters.

In the signature competition of the Olympics, the women's figure skating competition, Cohen is the great, glittering hope. If she can pull off a third straight American gold medal, if she can provide a snapshot to remember, there might be some hope for these Games after all.

Understand this: When you are talking about the Winter Olympics, the pixies are the Super Bowl, and every other athlete is in the Peach Bowl. Say what you will about gonzo skating and daredevil boarding, but this is the competition that makes Time magazine and Wheaties and Campbell's pay attention.

Not that there is any pressure here, mind you, but wouldn't it be nice if Cohen, that 95-pound slice of shimmering starlight, could hoist the Olympics onto her shoulder and carry them?

Look around the competition. What other American has enough ability for a medal, enough charisma for a merchandiser and enough charm for a moment?

Kimmie Meissner? Too young.

Emily Hughes? Too green.

Michelle Kwan? Too gone.

That leaves Cohen, who has finally come down from the mountains, where she has been training with Sasquatch and Jeremiah Johnson. Cohen has spent her Olympics in Courmayeur, working on her limelight in the shadows. When Kwan withdrew, Cohen was nowhere to be seen. When Hughes came in from the bullpen, Cohen could not be found. When snowboarder Shaun White starting pitching woo in her direction, she was invisible.

Considering Cohen is the finest skater in her country, present tense, she has been lost in the shuffle. Again.

For years, Kwan's brilliance has sucked all the light out of the room, and Cohen was seen by many as just another nemesis who would fade the way the Tara and Sarah show faded. In the production of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women on Ice, no one cast Cohen in the lead role.

As for Cohen, she seems to like it that way. She carries the mystery of a diva. And what better country for it?

Even Monday, as the skaters went through their paces at practice, it was difficult to get a fix on Cohen's chances. She practiced, but she didn't jump, which is hardly a way to frighten Russia's Irina Slutskaya, the woman to beat in the event.

Even without hops, however, there is a quality in the way Cohen moves around the ice. Her turns are tight, her control is excellent. She is fluid.

Asked about pressure Monday morning, Cohen suggested there was none at all on her. Even she didn't seem to believe it. For Cohen, this is the chance of her lifetime. That's all.

Can you imagine her Q rating if Cohen were to win this? She would be on commercials. She would show up with White on a new version of the Dating Game. Maybe Tom Cruise would make a run.

Who knew? Four years ago, Cohen was just another cute, carbonated competitor, nine parts bubbles and one part brilliance. She was Meissner. She was Hughes. When Cohen skated in the Salt Lake City Olympics, she was raw, inconsistent, undisciplined.

In the years since, Cohen has matured. She spent years bounding from coach to coach until returning to John Nix, a symbolic admission that maybe it wasn't the coaching, maybe it was the skating.

Tonight, Cohen attempts to change things. Oh, there will be others in the horse race. Slutskaya, for instance, the Russian skater who has been in so many Olympics you want to ask her about Peggy Fleming. There is Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, the leaper who trains in the United States. There is Italy's Carolina Kostner, who has homefield advantage.

Nice skaters, all of them. Nice stories, too.

But would you trust your Olympics to them?

Or perhaps, would you prefer Cohen, the American skater whose smile might as well come from the Jaws of Life?