Cohen Slips, but Finds Silver Lining

Shizuka Arakawa
Shizuka Arakawa performs a flawless long program to win the women's figure skating gold medal, Japan's first of the Turin Games. (Mike Segar - Reuters)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 23 -- When it was all over, the arena was filled with skaters trying to make the best of things. Almost nobody looked satisfied, with the exception of Japanese skater Shizuka Arakawa, who won the gold in Thursday's mistake-marred Olympic women's figure skating competition two years after nearly retiring.

U.S. figure skater Sasha Cohen, who had the lead after Tuesday's short program, ruined her gold medal hopes when she fell attempting the opening jump and stumbled on the landing of the second jump in her long program. Cohen, who smiled through her distress when her music ended, wound up with a silver medal despite fearing she had eliminated herself from medal contention.

"I really didn't think I would get a medal," Cohen said. "I was a little bit in shock."

Russian Irina Slutskaya, the reigning world champion, helped Cohen when she also fell and botched a couple of planned combination jumps. She ended up with the bronze and sat through the post-event news conference with tears in her eyes.

"I'm disappointed with my skate," said Slutskaya, who won the silver four years ago in Salt Lake City. "That's competition. You never know what will happen."

On a night of mediocrity and meltdowns, even U.S. youngsters Kimmie Meissner, 16, and Emily Hughes, 17, yielded to the pressure for the first time this week. Meissner dropped from fifth to sixth and Hughes hung on to seventh place.

Both hoped to use flawless skates to leap into the medal picture, much like Hughes's sister Sarah did in 2002, moving from fourth to first when Michelle Kwan, Cohen and Slutskaya faltered.

"It wasn't one of my best programs," Meissner said.

Unlike four years ago, there was not a single stirring performance. Arakawa skated elegantly and without falling to the ice, but her program was not perfect. She did not even attempt any triple-triple combination jumps, which were considered critical to the upset gold-medal skates by Tara Lipinski in 1998 and Sarah Hughes in 2002.

Arakawa also turned a planned triple loop into a double, but still managed to win by a commanding margin. She finished with 191.34 points. Cohen claimed 183.36; and Slutskaya, 181.44. Meissner tallied 165.71; and Hughes, 160.87.

"I'm so surprised I can't find any words for it," Arakawa said through an interpreter.

Arakawa, 24, ended a streak of success by teenagers that began with Oksana Baiul, then 16, in 1994 in Lillehammer. Lipinski was 15 when she won her gold and Hughes, 16.

Arakawa, who used two triple-triple combinations to win the 2004 world championships, considered retiring after that season and finished just ninth at last year's event. She finished third in the two Grand Prix events she entered last fall, and fell well behind 15-year-old Japanese star Mao Asada -- ruled too young to compete here -- in international acclaim.

"Many times I've thought about quitting," she said. "I'm happy I've continued and I haven't stopped."

Once Kwan left these Games with an injury, the stage seemed to be set for Cohen, the two-time world silver medalist, to claim the major international gold medal that she has long sought. But Cohen, who was greeted with chants of "USA" when she took the ice, looked nervous from the start. She led Slutskaya by just three-hundredths of a point and Arakawa by .71.

Unlike before the short program Tuesday, when the last-minute huddle with her coach John Nicks produced a little smile, Cohen took deep breathes before skating to center ice, buying time as if to compose herself. She admitted she was knocked a bit off kilter when she failed to land a triple lutz and triple flip during the six-minute warmup.

She had problems almost as soon as she got underway, and they weren't minor ones. Cohen fell while attempting the entry jumps to her first two combinations -- the triple lutz and flip -- which not only killed the scores on those jumps but also wiped out her chance to complete the other jumps. She took major point deductions, though she tacked a double toe jump onto a later triple flip.

"I'm not angry," Cohen said. "I'm just kind of let down a little bit. Ultimately, it's four minutes of one day in my life. . . . Physically, I wasn't executing the way I needed to."

Sasha Cohen, who was in first after Tuesday's short program, falls during the initial jump of her long routine. The American fell again attempting her second jump.
Sasha Cohen, who was in first after Tuesday's short program, falls during the initial jump of her long routine. The American fell again attempting her second jump.
When Meissner took the ice, only Arakawa had performed well to that point. The bronze medal was clearly there for the taking, but Meissner flubbed the two triple-triple combinations that could have lifted her above the field. Meissner stepped out of the first and finished the second with a double jump.

Slutskaya, the reigning world champion, started by skipping her first combination jump, hitting just a triple lutz and barely hanging onto her second. She added two double jumps later, but she fell hard attempting a triple loop. As soon as she saw her marks and realized she had not surpassed Cohen, she leaped up and hurried out of the kiss-n-cry.

When Hughes warmed up for her program earlier in the night, there were chants of "Go Emily!" from the crowd, and sister Sarah stood with friends and family waving a giant "Hughes gotta believe" sign. Emily Hughes, however, couldn't muster the magic that her sister managed in 2002. She fell hard on her fourth element, a triple loop, then turned a planned triple flip into a double.

"After I fell, I felt, 'Just have fun, this is the Olympics; it might be a once in a lifetime chance,' " said Hughes, called in last week to replace Kwan. "I have not had the thought, 'I hope this is over soon.' This has just been so much fun. I really enjoyed every minute of it."

Hughes, who skated in the second-to-last competitive group, can take satisfaction in the fact that she stood in first place for a good 15 minutes before Canadian Joannie Rochette bumped her to second. She continued to slide down as the rest of the top skaters performed.

"It felt awesome to be number one," she said. "Let's hope next time I stay there."

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