Sasha Cohen is not shy to admit that she found the Salt Lake City Olympics, her first Winter Games, gravely discouraging. She confesses that she envied the ride Sarah Hughes took to her surprise gold medal. Cohen, who sank from third to fourth place while Hughes soared, never attempted to focus on the bright side, never made a phony showing of good sportsmanship.
Cohen says, without hesitation, she harbors regrets about those Games. She made several mistakes in the deciding long program. Unlike Hughes, she did not snatch the opportunity she had; rather, she attempted to tiptoe up to it.
She was tentative. She was nervous. And her approach, she is convinced, doomed her.
She has spent the last year trying to make sure that never happens again. Sitting in third place entering tonight's short program at the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships, Cohen hopes to prove that she has learned and progressed.
"This season," she said recently," has been a huge accomplishment for me."
And she isn't just talking about her tangible successes, her two Grand Prix event victories, her first Grand Prix title. Cohen, 18, has changed her life around since the Salt Lake Games.
She changed coaches. She moved across the country -- with her entire family in tow. And, she says, she has tried to change her approach to competition. She has earned a reputation for inconsistency and she knows it. At these world championships, she said, she intends to attack each element in each program, checking them off like items on a grocery list. Just like she did in the qualifying round Wednesday night.
"I'm learning a lot," she said. "I've learned very important ways to think about the program, to take it one jump at a time."
She said she has attempted to train her mind to slow down during her performances, rather than getting ahead of -- or in the way of -- her skating. She spent an extra moment composing herself before Wednesday's free skate -- in fact, she seemed so engrossed in her personal preparations, she barely acknowledged the crowd as she assumed her starting position.
She then carried out a routine with just one inexplicable stumble as she turned a corner. In the most difficult group, she landed behind fellow American Michelle Kwan and Russian Elena Sokolova.
"When you go out there in front of thousands of people, knowing you've trained your whole life for this and that in four minutes you either will make it or regret it, you've just got to be able to block that out and focus on technique," she said shortly after the performance. "I really feel like the experience of the Olympic year has given me a lot."
In tonight's short program, Hughes, too, hopes she can draw from her Olympic experience. Hughes endured one of the worst free skates of her life in Wednesday's qualifying round, falling once, stumbling on another jump and turning two planned triples into singles. The performance landed her in sixth place in her group, which means she is tied for 11th overall.
Hughes, of course, has come back before -- at the Olympics. In that case, though, she was merely stuck in fourth place. Her coach, Robin Wagner, said she and Hughes aren't even considering the possibility that she can come back and win the event.
"She has a good attitude," Wagner said. "She's keeping her chin up. . . . She doesn't usually perform that way. It was a surprise, but there is no athlete who doesn't go through a couple of those during a career."
Cohen, on her part, hopes most of her debacles are in her past. She struggled at the January U.S. championships, ending up in tears after she finished third behind Kwan and Hughes, but she rebounded with a victory in February's Grand Prix final.
Her new coach, Tatiana Tarasova, has helped in the process. A Russian by birth, Tarasova often speaks to Cohen in streams of animated Russian, sentences whose beginnings and ends collide. Cohen, whose mother emigrated to the United States from Ukraine and spoke that language at home, always nods respectfully and listens attentively. She said she is able to understand virtually all of what Tarasova says because of her Eastern European roots.
She credits Tarasova -- who calls Cohen the most talented woman skater she has ever seen -- with fine-tuning her jumping technique. She also said Tarasova is more of a taskmaster than her previous coach, John Nicks, and that she relishes the intensity.
"Tatiana is very much like me," Cohen said. "We're both very emotional people, both a little impatient. We want the best out of me, and we want it now."
Last summer, Cohen, who finished second at the 2000 and 2002 national championships, let it be known she wished to join Tarasova, which meant moving from Westwood, Calif., to Avon, Conn. Rather than letting her make the move on her own, Cohen's family decided to move with her. That has meant routine coast-to-coast commutes for her lawyer father, a change of schools and friends for younger sister Natasha, and a culture shock for the whole family.
"I do put a lot of pressure on myself," she said. "My family moved out [to Avon] for me. I put everything into this every day.
"I'm just going to make sure I don't hold back."