January 24, 2002
Feisty figure skater Sasha Cohen heads off to the Olympics, Magen David in tow.
"Joey likes Rachel!"
In Aliso Viejo's Ice Chalet snack bar, six typical teens squeal about "Friends" and lace their skates. Among them, an eye-catching brunette balances against a table and lifts her left foot to meet her back. The banner above the skate-rental booth, constructed with orange paper and Scotch tape, reads: "Congratulations! Sasha Cohen 2002 Silver Medalist, you're go'in to the Olympics!"
The flexible brunette? Not just a typical teenager.
Sasha Cohen, 17, will be one of three women figure skaters to represent the United States in the 2002 Winter Olympics. The sassy Aliso Niguel High School senior overcame a debilitating injury and will travel to Salt Lake City in February to fulfill her Olympic dream.
"I'm looking forward to everything: opening and closing ceremonies, staying in the village, hopefully skating my best and winning the medal," Cohen says, glossing her lips with a pink wand.
Fan mail covers the snack counter, and a pint-size girl asks Cohen to autograph her skate. The Orange County Jewish teen seems unfazed by her new celebrity status.
"It's exciting and fun, but it's not reality. I'm enjoying it now, but when it's not here, that's OK, too," Cohen says, fidgeting with the zipper on her rhinestoned black hood. In fact, Cohen seems more excited about her upcoming Winter Formal and her kitten, Mia, than the media attention.
The 5-foot-1, 94-pound bundle of energy and radiance wasn't bat mitzvahed, but always wears a gold medallion around her neck. "The front is an astrological map for my birthday, and the back is my lucky star," Cohen told The Journal. The star is a Star of David. Her parents, Roger, an international business consultant and lawyer, and Gelina, attend Shir Ha-Ma'alot, a Reform congregation, and her 13-year-old sister, Natasha, attends Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School in Irvine.
Her journey to the Olympics is not a typical "Go For the Gold" story, either. Last year, she discovered a stress fracture in a vertebrae and was forced to withdraw from the 2001 Nationals and miss the skating season. Isolated from competition, the strong-willed Cohen held fast to her Olympic dream.
"I had to keep in mind what my goals were and the steps to get there. I took every day one at a time and looked to where my dreams were," Cohen recalls, her Snow White complexion blushing.
She underwent extensive physical therapy and changed her training regimen and diet. "I wanted to make sure that when I was back on the ice, I was fit and ready," Cohen says.
Randy Bauer, a Laguna Hills physical therapist who helped the teen regain strength and flexibility, admires Cohen's tenacity. "Sasha's greatest asset, especially for such a young athlete, is her ability to maintain focus," Bauer says. "After being away from her sport for so long, she came back to compete at such a high level."
Her perseverance paid off. In recent months, she has rocked the skating scene. To reestablish her place among her competitors and rebuild her reputation with the judges, Cohen skated a heavy fall schedule. She finished fifth at Skate America, fourth at September's Goodwill Games, third at November's Trophee Lalique in Paris and first in the Finlandia Trophy -- all stops on Cohen's road to the 2002 U.S. National Championships.
But it was this month's Nationals that was the key: held at the Staples Center, the top three women would earn Olympic spots.
In second place after her elegant short program, Cohen secured the silver medal, and her Olympic berth, with her mesmerizing long program. Dressed in black, her hair pulled back with a red rose, Cohen electrified the rink with her interpretation of "Carmen." Though she turned a triple-triple combination into a triple-double, she landed six triple jumps overall. Her skating, which was energetic, fresh and brimmed with attitude, earned her technical marks ranging from 5.6-5.8, and presentation marks ranging from 5.7-5.9.
Having her hometown Los Angeles crowd heightened Cohen's confidence. "There was an exciting vibe because I knew so many people, and everyone was behind me," she says, eyes widening as she describes the experience.
Cohen will skate her captivating "Carmen" at the Olympics. "It's important, for the second mark [artistic], to make the long program dramatic, to convey a story and make it interesting for the audience," she notes.
John Nicks, Cohen's coach of five years and a former world champion pairs skater, originally opposed Cohen's music choice, because Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas both skated to "Carmen" at the 1988 Olympics.
But Cohen insisted, in her typical feisty way. "It's music that I've always loved, and I feel the character's personality is similar to mine," Cohen says of Georges Bizet's tragic opera, which tells the tale of a rebellious Spanish peasant -- wild and independent. Cohen, like Carmen, is known for her strong character.
Cohen's attitude was scrutinized at the Nationals. During the six-minute-long program warm-up, Cohen skated into Angela Nikodinov's path and collided twice with Michelle Kwan. Fellow skaters and the media insinuated that Cohen purposefully distracted her competitors.
Gelina Cohen, Sasha's Ukraine-born mother, dismisses the accusations. "They think she's that good that she doesn't need to spend her time warming up? She can just spend her time getting in everyone's way?" she says.
In her own defense, Cohen sounds genuinely sincere. "It's difficult when there are so many people on the ice and we've just got six minutes. Sometimes you really can't help getting close to other people," Cohen says.
She speaks gently, with a warm smile. But there is a firmness behind her words. She may be innocent of such mind games, but she is undeniably headstrong.
"Sasha is not a 'yes' person. She will defend her point until you convince her otherwise," Gelina says of her daughter's headstrong nature, which often leads to a battle of wills with her coach.
She debates program elements with Nicks, who has coached at every Winter Olympics since 1968. "If someone else picks your music and choreography, it's not really what you like. By playing a part with those, I get exactly what I want in my program. It's better for me to skate that way," Cohen says, more confidently than cocky.
Their feuds are infused with reverence and respect. Even in debate, Cohen calls her mentor "Mr. Nicks." The two seem to enjoy their sparring, and their close bond is evident.
"There are things I think should be this way and Mr. Nicks thinks should be that way, but we usually meet somewhere," Cohen said.
This tug of war between them is more playful than combative. Nicks, 72, defines the relationship: "She has a grandfather, a business manager and friends. I am none of those. I am her coach."
But the Englishman says the sparring has calmed. "We disagreed a lot at the beginning of the season, but leading up to Nationals she was responsive. We just met about our Olympic plan, and we seem to be on the same page," he says.
On this sunny Friday morning practice in Laguna, less than a month before the Winter Games, conflict seems inconceivable. Skating with speed and grace, Cohen is a powerhouse pixie. She grabs her left ankle with her right hand, her head just inches above the ice, and points her free leg 180 degrees to the sky. She looks to her coach for approval, and Nicks' response is gentle, encouraging and supportive.
Nicks prepares his prized pupil for the Salt Lake City rink, down to the last detail. "The judges are here," he tells Cohen, pointing. "The seats are higher, so the crowd will be up there." Cohen nods and adjusts her upper body angle.
Next, Cohen, wearing a practice harness, lands her stunning quadruple salchow jump.
Yes!" Nicks exclaims. "That's my Sasha -- four rotations midair in under three-quarters of a second." He positively beams.
Cohen, who began skating at age 7 and eight years later captured the silver medal at the January 2000 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, now plans to shock the skating world and be the first women to land a quadruple jump in competition. "I'm always trying to push the envelope, create challenges and do new things, " Cohen says.
"Women never try the quad. Men do it all the time. It's something that I can do, I have done and will work hard to do at the Olympics."
Spoken like a true teenage Carmen with her eye on the gold.