While other skaters stayed home, a tiny tornado of determination spun through the fall skating season, pushing ahead despite the absence of her rivals, generating momentum from her mediocre performance at the Olympics last year and the desire never to let it happen again.
As Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes recovered from injury, Sasha Cohen -- who finished fourth at last February's Salt Lake City Winter Games -- competed as if another Olympic medal were at stake. As Olympic bronze medalist Michelle Kwan pondered her future, Cohen won three out of four competitions.
Though others used the post-Olympic season as a time for recuperation or contemplation, Cohen treated the time as a chance to build her resume in a sport in which reputation matters, while exercising her competitive spirit as if it were a muscle that could be strengthened. And so it is that, 11 month after the 2002 Olympics, Cohen enters next week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Dallas, which will set the U.S. field for the March world championships in Washington, as the arguable favorite to win what would be her first U.S. title in the ladies event.
"Right now," Cohen, 18, said recently, "this season is a season of opportunity for me."
Since winning a stunning silver medal at the U.S. championships three years ago, Cohen has been considered the best raw material in U.S. women's skating. Yet she is still too green and too undecorated to compete with two-time Olympic medalist Kwan in terms of popularity. And she has failed to produce such a leap as Hughes did at last year's Olympics, shooting from well-regarded to overnight sensation after winning an unfathomable gold medal. But even as Hughes and Kwan share the distinction of being the queens of skating in the United States, Cohen remains what she has been for the last couple of years: the one to watch.
Russian-born Tatiana Tarasova has coached a host of Olympians over the years, but she refrained from training female singles skaters until Cohen sought her out this summer.
"Sasha is something special," Tarasova said during Trophee Lalique in Paris last November. "She is the most talented skater I've ever seen. Maybe Oksana Baiul could compare to her. . . . I think she has 10 times more to show than she is showing right now."
Cohen has never taken ballet lessons, yet she exudes an instinctive grace that makes high presentation scores virtually automatic. She possesses the leaping ability and diminutive build to keep pace with the constant technical advancements in skating, working on quadruple jumps and novel triple-triple combinations in her spare time. She also exhibits a relentless drive that has occasionally been interpreted as unsporting or needlessly ferocious. She was accused by several journalists last year of trying intentionally to bump Kwan during a pair of practices. Cohen said she simply wasn't paying attention, too focused on her own training to worry about who might be in her way.
She even sounded a bit cold in describing her reasons for dumping California-based coach John Nicks last summer in favor of the Connecticut-based Tarasova, a decision that resulted in an almost overnight coast-to-coast move for her family. She blamed her inconsistent performances in the past in part on a training environment that included "horrible" conditions at a rink geared more toward recreational skaters than elites. She said she did not believe that, with Nicks, she was taking best advantage of her talent.
"I needed a change," she said. "Skating is my career now."
While Hughes takes pride in a well-rounded existence that includes involvement in political and charitable causes, Cohen seems to spend most of her time off the ice involved in projects designed to aid her on it. She creates her own costumes and recently acquired the sponsorship of Swarovski crystal, a deal that makes her leotards glitter from something finer than sequins. She loves cooking nutritious meals that will help -- or, at least, not hinder -- her training. When on the road at a skating event, she can be seen going purposefully from practice to practice, her mother Galina a constant travel companion who tends to mundane problems so she can focus on her skating.
This past season, Cohen competed in two competitions that counted toward her standing in the Grand Prix circuit (she won Trophee Lalique and Skate Canada) and added an optional event for additional work (at the Cup of Russia, she finished second). Finally, she capped the season with a defeat of Hughes in a minor competition in Auburn Hills, Mich., in December.
"I always go into every skating season trying to skate my best, trying to win everything, trying to set my goals as high as they possibly can be," Cohen said. "My goals are pretty much as high as the sky."
Even though Cohen had never won a major international event before this season, she went into the Olympic Games shooting for -- true to her nature -- a gold medal. Cohen, who finished second behind Kwan at last year's nationals, was actually in position at the Olympics to claim the gold, having landed in third place after the short program, but she made several mistakes that cost her dearly in the deciding long.
"A lot of people thought I did well, but it wasn't my personal best and I was disappointed with that," she said. "There will always be a little bit of regret, a little bit of hurt, that I felt that was an opportunity I didn't take."
After the Olympics, Cohen performed on the Tom Collins Champions on Ice tour, doing about half of the more than 90 shows. All the while, she mulled her future. By mid-August, she decided she wanted to join Tarasova and choreographer Nicolai Morosov in Simsbury, Conn. (Tarasova and Morosov have since parted ways; Cohen has remained with Tarasova.) Tarasova has coached more than 40 Olympic or world gold medal winners, including Russian Ilia Kulik and Russian ice dancers Pasha Grischuk and Evgeny Platov.
Cohen's decision had a colossal impact on her parents and 14-year-old sister. Within two weeks of their decision to go with Cohen, they were renting a house in Avon, Conn. Her father, Roger, a lawyer, was making frequent flights back to California to tend to business.
"We knew we were going to have to go somewhere," Galina Cohen said. "We just didn't realize we would have to go that far. . . . [But] we decided we weren't going to separate the family; we were going to be all together."
Cohen hopes to make the move worth everyone's time. She said training under Tarasova has brought more regimentation and rigor to her workouts. Because Cohen learned Ukrainian from her mother, who was born there, she can understand Tarasova in her native language of Russian, aiding their communication.
"I couldn't ask any more in a coach," Cohen said. "She's 110 percent there for me. . . . The way she trains me, I have 110 percent trust in everything she does. We have a real plan every single day."
The plan for next week?
To win, of course.