Skating Sprites Come Up Big

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

TURIN, Italy

Pound for chiffon-draped pound, your average American women's figure skater has as much competitive guts as any athlete at these Olympics. That was the only conclusion to come to after watching Sasha Cohen, Kimmie Meissner and Emily Hughes rescue an entire nation's pride in the short program at the Palavela.

All over these Olympics, Americans with outsize reputations have whined, fallen, bickered and blamed. But these three limelight-drenched young women, who might have had every excuse to fail, stood up under some of the worst pressure in the Turin Games, and smiled while they did it, too.

In case you didn't understand the stakes, the women's Olympic short program is 2 1/2 of the most unforgiving, non-negotiable minutes in sports. It rivals the Kentucky Derby for sheer buildup and yet brevity, and it happens only every four years. It consists of eight required elements, with no do-overs. And it's skated before a panel of nine judges who look about as forgiving as a row of Helen Thomases.

Cohen, all 5 feet 2 and 95 pounds of her, seemed no bigger than a locket as she took the ice. As she stood there with that Valentine of a face and her tight hair bun in her glimmering sequined gypsy dress, you thought, no way. She's just too little. The Russian Irina Slutskaya, lying in first place, seemed too dynamic, too great and too sure in her status as the reigning world champion.

But then Cohen began to hummingbird over the ice, and as the music quickened, so did every pulse in the building. By the end of it, Cohen had filled an entire building with roars, and made it stand up along with her. She had also knocked Slutskaya out of first place by just .03 of a point. The score caused her coach, John Nicks, to exultantly lift her arm in the air, as if the athlete beside him was a fighter, not a skater. Which, really, she was.

"It was difficult to skate at the end after so many strong performances and I just took it one step at a time," she said. "I stayed strong and I believed in myself. To finish with a strong program, have a standing ovation, and then have judges give me great marks on top of that."

With the performance, Cohen seems poised to become the greatest figure skater in the world. The only thing that has kept her from that title so far is a nagging inconsistency; she has yet to get through both the short and long programs in a major competition without a mistake. But she has fought hard to remedy her weaknesses and her little frame is deceptively strong -- she can leg press 400 pounds. Her performance in the short was potentially significant because it came on a night when Slutskaya was at her best, and all of the other potential medalists skated cleanly, too. And there is something that sounds strong in her voice, too.

"It's definitely going to be tough for everyone to do great longs with the pressure," she said. "I've trained as hard as I possibly can this entire year. I'm going to believe in myself and expect the best."

After watching Cohen, you couldn't help but think of a certain much-publicized skier skulking in his trailer up on the mountainside -- and wish he had been here to see what a real competitor looks like. It's not been a wonderful Olympics for Americans. Or perhaps it's more right to say that Americans have not been wonderful at the Olympics. Michelle Kwan showed up hurt. Bode Miller has failed to medal in four Alpine events, but it's his excuse-making and sour behavior off his skis that have been so very disappointing. Speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick fouled their gold medal performances with their feuding. That left skier Todd Ligety, snowboarder Shaun White and ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto as the feel-good stories for the United States. And it left the USOC counting heavily on the women skaters to help with the medal count, and NBC counting heavily on them to boost ratings.

Cohen was the one with the most pressure heaped on her, but Meissner and Hughes deserved a salute for their grit, too, in what was the Olympic debut for both. Meissner, 16, was just the second skater to take the ice, an unenviable position, but she solidly nailed every jump and spin, and her only mistake was a slight misstep on her footwork, as she placed fifth. "I think I was just kind of excited," she said. "I think I was definitely more excited than nervous."

And then there was the 17-year-old Hughes. For pressure, how about getting the call to come to the Olympics with only a week's notice, because Kwan pulled out? And how about making your Olympic debut with your older sister, Sarah, the defending gold medalist, watching in the stands? Those were the circumstances under which Hughes took the ice, and she couldn't have handled them any better. She never complained or offered to use either as an excuse. Instead, like she delivered a lionhearted performance that left her in seventh place.

"It was just great to do a clean program at my first Olympics, and only finding out a little over a week ago that I was coming here. To have that experience of feeling such elation after the program was great," she said.

It's said you can't win the gold medal in the short program, but you can certainly lose it. Cohen, Meissner and Hughes are now within hailing distance of the medal podium. But no matter what happens now, each of them has already done something great: They showed us all, from the athletes here to the folks at home, what it means to compete.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company