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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - Page updated at 09:50 AM

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Ron Judd

Figure Skating: Sasha Cohen hits the big time

Seattle Times staff columnist

TURIN, Italy — For once in her life, she was huge.

Sasha Cohen, all of 5 feet and 90 pounds, didn't look that way stepping onto the ice at the Palavela Tuesday night.

She was a pale, diminutive figure in a silly turquoise, stretchy dress, skating out to do, in most people's minds, what she has perfected over her first 21 years: finish second.

It was all set up.

Twenty-eight skaters — the entire field in the women's short program — had gone before her. A handful of those — Shizuka Arakawa and Fumie Suguri of Japan, Emily Hughes and Kimmie Meissner of the U.S. and, especially, rival and gold-medal favorite Irina Slutskaya of Russia — had shone.

Slutskaya, in fact, had pulled her own Evgeni Plushenko imitation, taking to the ice in a spangly blue unitard and laying down a short program so spirited and, except for some shaky gliding in a spiral sequence, so apparently dominant that a lot of the skating world was already muttering, "Game over."

Worse yet, a crowd of 6,001, tired of sitting for 3 hours through the good and bad of women's figure skating, was downright surly: Their hometown favorite, Carolina Kostner of Italy, had just cleared the ice after a fall dumped her into 10th place.

Into this pressure cooker, this penultimate prime-time scene of an Olympics in which every ball America rolls seems gutter-bound, walked Cohen, who took a last, deep breath and skated to her coach, John Nicks.

Nicks, the 76-year-old mentor who unleashed Cohen on the world a decade ago, and welcomed her back into his fold only recently, reached out and grasped both of her hands.

He squeezed, looked into her brown eyes and said: "I know you can do this."

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At center ice, her program tune — Russian folk music called "Dark Eyes" — began playing, and Cohen, the daughter of a former Ukranian ballerina, lifted to her toes like an American one, launching into what might have been the greatest short-program performance of her career.

Her opening combination, a triple lutz/double toe loop, was perfect, and when she cleared the landing, Cohen punctuated it by snapping her arms outward, palms straight up — a message to the crowd, the judges, the world.

Ta-da.

It went on just like that. Triple flip: bang. Camel spin: boom. Double axel: late takeoff, a scantly detectable quiver, but a solid landing graced by a glassy-smooth exit.

As her music bounced into a staccato beat, the crowd put down its seat cushions, unzipped its collective jacket and sat back down, captivated by a spiral sequence that sent the young Californian soaring across the ice with a wingspan suddenly looming large.

She capped it all by pulling her leg completely over her head, in a way that only her legs seem able to go, and turning her body into a bluish blur before stopping on a dime and thrusting her arms skyward.

Standing there, absorbing the biggest roar heard yet at these Olympics, the usually reserved Cohen looked to Nicks, looked to the judges, looked to the sky, pumped a fist and mouthed something that needed no translation:

"Yes!"

She was still soaking up some of the crowd's love when the judge's marks placed her ahead of Slutskaya — by an almost ridiculously small .03 points. She seemed genuinely surprised.

And happy.

Cohen is the first to admit she has not always been able to get to that place and stay there. But the Sasha of Turin '06 clearly is a different young woman from the fourth-place, teenaged Sasha who cracked under the pressure of Salt Lake '02.

"I'm a different person," she said afterward, echoing what she has been saying for months, since finishing second at the spring world championships and finishing first at the U.S. championships in St. Louis last month. "I've just evolved."

But nobody listened until she put it down on the ice in front of the world Tuesday night. And nobody will believe until she does it again in Thursday's free skate, in the process perhaps pulling a monumental upset of the heavily favored Slutskaya.

Do you believe in Sasha Cohen?

Nicks does, and he has become a rock for the pupil he calls, with a gleam in his eye, "unusual." During the interminable wait for Cohen to skate, the veteran coach — who has guided, by his count, 37 skaters to various national skating titles but never coached an Olympic medalist — was biding time down below, setting a laugh-at-the-pressure example for Cohen by working on a crossword puzzle.

They will begin mulling Thursday's free-skate program, Cohen's head-to-head-to-head matchup with Slutskaya and Arakawa, sometime today.

On this night, Cohen simply wanted to relish what had just happened on a sheet of ice that qualifies as one of the great pressure cookers in all of sport.

In a place where every flaw, every stumble, every misplaced eyelash, is digitally beamed around the globe and scrutinized by blabbermouths who have no idea what it took to get here, Cohen went out and rendered them all speechless.

"I did it," she said, grinning at the realization that the pieces she can control and those she cannot had finally come together.

"The judges did it. We both did it together."

She proved that when she is on, she is a world beater who can not only challenge, but perhaps slip past Slutskaya, who at 27 seeks to become the oldest woman's champion — and complete a Russian sweep of Olympic figure-skating golds.

One more night, one more program, one more chance to beat the old demons into submission and stand, for once, on the podium rung she has always looked up at.

It'd be a big deal for America at these Olympics. And for Sasha Cohen?

Huge.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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