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Cohen mystery is no big mystery

We've seen figure skaters competing without coaches, but this was a new one.

John Nicks, the longtime coach of Sasha Cohen, was standing rinkside Wednesday during the women's practice session, the one set aside for the top six on the eve of what is widely considered the biggest event in the Winter Olympics.

As the skaters ran through their programs, Nicks pulled out a magazine on powerboating and set it on the ledge in front of him. He put on his reading glasses. He rested his elbows on the wall and flipped through it.

Nicks had no one to coach. Cohen, leading a competition in which she, Russian Irina Slutskaya and Japan's Shizuka Arakawa are separated by .71 points, took the day off to rest. Her surprising absence set off a flurry of speculation about her health - she wore an ice pack near her groin after Tuesday's short program - that Nicks later dismissed.

Cohen, he said, was merely tired after a poor night's sleep. She said during a late breakfast that she had tossed and turned until after 3 a.m. and preferred to delay her practice until the morning before today's free skate.

"We didn't get out of here (after Tuesday's performance) until 12:30, quarter to one," Nicks said after the late-afternoon practice. "She told me she couldn't get to sleep. She was excited and hyper; she knew she had done well.

"She was tired. She agreed to rest today and tomorrow have a short practice and try to be energized."

Cohen, 21, who Tuesday attributed the ice pack to standard maintenance for a veteran skater, might have lacked energy for practice, but there was plenty of crackling through the Palavela from other sources.

Nicks said he attended the practice partly to time Cohen's music, to ensure that her skate fell within the required 4 minutes, 10 seconds, and partly to answer the inevitable questions about her absence.

"She was very happy in the morning, tired, relaxed," Nicks said. "She had a huge breakfast/brunch/lunch, whatever it was. She seemed fine."

Indeed, Cohen surprised the field before the short program, when she skipped that day's morning workout in order to sleep late.

If any of the top skaters falter today, two American youngsters have declared themselves ready to pounce on a medal.

Kimmie Meissner, 16, the youngest skater in the U.S. delegation, sits in fifth place with 59.40 points, 6.62 points behind third-place Arakawa. Emily Hughes, the younger sister of the 2002 Winter Games champion Sarah, is in seventh place, 8.94 points behind.

"I think they all have a chance," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, who coaches Miki Ando, who is in eighth place. "That is one thing about this new system ... it makes it very interesting. You can move way up."

With his 10th-to-fourth leap in the free skate of the men's competition, American Evan Lysacek illustrated the possibilities under the new, points-based scoring system when a skater performs brilliantly and others collapse.

"Anything's possible," Meissner said. "I think I have a good shot. I think everybody right now in the last group does. I'm trying to worry about how I skate, not the results, but it would be nice."

Hughes' medal hopes lie somewhere between improbable and impossible; her biggest challenge today might be hanging on to seventh.

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