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Stumble to silver

She is falling still, flashing past her dreams, past her goals, past her gold.

Sasha Cohen plummets toward the ice in an eternal free fall, unable to stop herself. She is crashing, and not even a silver medal can brace her fall, and not even her rival below can cushion her landing. In the end, this is the memory we will have of her. Throughout time, she will be the snapshot of a woman who fell because she could not fly.

On the night it rained figure skaters, this was the lasting image. Cohen was out of control, overtaken by the gravity of her situation and the gravity of the Earth. A few seconds into her program, she landed hard, and all of her possibilities scattered around her.

In a competition of a thousand stars, all of them fell from the sky. Cohen. Irina Slutskaya. Kimmie Meissner. Emily Hughes. Pretty much everyone else.

Japan's Shizuka Arakawa won the gold, largely because she pulled off the rare maneuver of remaining upright. Arakawa was crisp and energetic, and she was the only skater whose performance really merited a medal. Still, you were left with the impression that if Cohen could have stood up to the pressure, physically, the gold would have been hers.

Instead, she fell. Like Icarus. Like Skylab. Like Gerald Ford on the gangway.

It was a grand collapse, and as harsh as it might sound, it will be the way Cohen, 21, is remembered. She has never been a closer, never been able to piece together a successful long program after a successful short. In her hands, no lead has ever been safe.

Twice she has blown a lead at the halfway point at the nationals, once at the world championships. Now, she has done it at the Olympics. For all the times Cohen insisted she had matured, insisted she was a different athlete, she ended up with the same result. Frostbite.

She fell. Like autumn leaves. Like summer rain. Like nuclear winter.

Poor Sasha. She never gave herself a chance. She fell twice in warmups, and she spent several seconds squeezing the bridge of her nose, trying desperately to collect herself. She couldn't.

"It's kind of hard to act like you're getting Churros at Disneyland," she said later.

She started her program looking wide-eyed, skittish. A few seconds into it, she fell on her first jump. Then, on her second, she stumbled badly, putting her hands on the ice to steady herself. Just like that, it was as if her sport needed a new name: Bobskate, perhaps.

Cohen finished with the silver medal, possibly because skating does not have a two-knockdown rule, but she admitted the CD-shaped disc around her neck was "a gift."

"I definitely wasn't expecting any medal," said Cohen, who went backstage, changed and sat shocked at her own collapse. "It was a nice surprise."

Look, there is something to be said for a woman gathering herself after botching her opening moves so horribly. Give Cohen that. But you also have to notice what Cohen missed out on. Millions of dollars in endorsements. A piece of history. A reshaped legacy.

She fell. Like the stock market of '29. Like King Kong off the Empire State building. Like Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz.

Turns out, she fell on Slutskaya. The news conference after the event was delayed; possibly so the organizers could add seat belts to the chairs.

Most of us were convinced that Cohen's competition would come from Slutskaya, the 27-year-old Russian. But Slutskaya tumbled, too, and she altered her program by the half-minute until she looked like Peyton Manning calling audibles.

That's a shame, too. Slutskaya has accomplished almost everything else in her career but an Olympic gold. Given her health problems - she had a heart ailment a little over a year ago - it would have been nice to see her win.

Instead, the medal went to Arakawa, Japan's first medal of the Games. Two years ago, Arakawa, now 24, was on the verge of retirement. But she won the 2004 World Championship, and she was the cleanest skater here. (It's no small thing. In the men's competition, the silver and bronze medalists also fell).

To the oddsmakers - yes, you can bet on this stuff - Slutskaya had been a favorite coming in. Her jumps were more difficult than Cohen's, and even though she had never won Olympic gold, her nerves were considered more stable than Cohen's.

At least Cohen's supporters can talk about her health issues. Cohen admitted she had aches and pains - she was skating on a Celebrex-Tylenol cocktail - going into the performance. She had ice treatments after Tuesday's performance, and she missed Wednesday's practice, supposedly because of a rough night of sleep.

Cohen said, however, she felt fine physically.

Emotionally? That was a different story. And it's a label with which Cohen will have to deal. If you believe that figure skaters are athletes, it's as fair to wonder about Cohen's inability to hold a lead as it is a pitcher's or a quarterback's.

To many, then, Cohen will go down as Jean Van de Velde in the British Open, as Mitch Williams in the World Series, as the Cincinnati Bengals against Joe Montana. She had the lead, she had the chance, and she did not hold up.

"I think I've done more good shorts than good longs," Cohen said. "But I have done good longs. Not always in the places and times I wanted to, but I've done good longs. Not dozens, but I've done them."

Yes. But who is going to remember them?

She fell. Like Humpty-Dumpty. Like the Berlin Wall. Like a misguided angel.

OFFICIAL RESULTS

Name Ctry Short Free Total

Gold Arakawa Jap 66.02 125.32 191.34

Silver Cohen U.S. 66.73 116.63 183.36

Bronze Slutskaya Rus 66.70 114.74 181.44

4. Suguri Jap 61.75 113.48 175.23

5. Rochette Can 55.85 111.42 167.27

6. Meissner U.S. 59.40 106.31 165.71

7. Hughes U.S. 57.08 103.79 160.87

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