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On the road to Salt Lake City Feisty figure skater Sasha Cohen heads to the Olympics, Magen David in tow
February 1st, 2002
Los Angeles (The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles) — “Joey likes Rachel!”
In Aliso Viejo’s Ice Chalet snack bar, six typical teens squeal about “Friends” and lace their skates. Among them, an eye-catching brunette balances against a table and lifts her left foot to meet her back. The banner above the skate rental booth, constructed with orange paper and Scotch tape, reads: “Congratulations! Sasha Cohen 2002 Silver Medalist, you’re go’in to the Olympics!”
The flexible brunette? Not just a typical teenager.
Sasha Cohen, 17, will be one of three women figure skaters to represent the United States in the 2002 Winter Olympics. The sassy Aliso Niguel High School senior overcame a debilitating injury and will travel to Salt Lake City in February to fulfill her Olympic dream.
“I’m looking forward to everything: opening and closing ceremonies, staying in the village, hopefully skating my best and winning the medal,” Cohen says.
Fan mail covers the snack counter, and a pint-size girl asks Cohen to autograph her skate. The Orange County teen seems unfazed by her new celebrity status.
“It’s exciting and fun, but it’s not reality. I’m enjoying it now, but when it’s not here, that’s OK, too,” Cohen says, fidgeting with the zipper on her rhinestoned black hood. In fact, Cohen seems more excited about her upcoming Winter Formal and her kitten, Mia, than the media attention.
The 5-foot-1, 94-pound bundle of energy and radiance wasn’t bat mitzvahed, but always wears a gold medallion around her neck, a gift from her grandmother’s friend.
“The front is an astrological map for my birthday, and the back is my lucky star,” Cohen told The Journal. The star is a Star of David. Her parents, Roger, an international business consultant and lawyer, and Gelina, are members of Shir Ha-Ma’alot, a Reform congregation, and her 13-year-old sister, Natasha, attends Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine.
Her journey to the Olympics is not a typical “Go For the Gold” story. Last year, she discovered a stress fracture in a vertebrae and was forced to withdraw from the 2001 Nationals and miss the skating season. Isolated from competition, the strong-willed Cohen held fast to her Olympic dream.
“I had to keep in mind what my goals were and the steps to get there. I took every day one at a time and looked to where my dreams were,” Cohen recalls, blushing. She underwent extensive physical therapy and changed her training regimen and diet. “I wanted to make sure that when I was back on the ice, I was fit and ready,” Cohen says.
Her perseverance paid off. In recent months, she has rocked the skating scene. To reestablish her place among her competitors and rebuild her reputation with the judges, Cohen skated a heavy fall schedule. She finished fifth at Skate America, fourth at September’s Goodwill Games, third at November’s Trophee Lalique in Paris and first in the Finlandia Trophy —all stops on Cohen’s road to the 2002 U.S. National Championships.
But it was January’s Nationals that was the key: Held at the Staples Center, the top three women would earn Olympic spots.
In second place after her elegant short program, Cohen secured the silver medal, and her Olympic berth, with her mesmerizing long program. Dressed in black, her hair pulled back with a red rose, Cohen electrified the rink with her interpretation of “Carmen.”
Though she turned a triple-triple combination into a triple-double, she landed six triple jumps overall. Her skating, which was energetic, brimmed with attitude.
Having her hometown Los Angeles crowd heightened Cohen’s confidence. “There was an exciting vibe because I knew so many people, and everyone was behind me,” she says, eyes widening as she describes the experience.
Cohen will skate her captivating “Carmen” at the Olympics. “It’s important, for the [artistic] mark, to make the long program dramatic, to convey a story and make it interesting for the audience,” she notes.
John Nicks, Cohen’s coach of five years and a former world champion pairs skater, originally opposed Cohen’s music choice, because Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas both skated to “Carmen” at the 1988 Olympics.
But Cohen insisted. “It’s music that I’ve always loved, and I feel the character’s personality is similar to mine,” Cohen says of Georges Bizet’s tragic opera, which tells the tale of a rebellious Spanish peasant. Cohen, like Carmen, is known for her strong character.
She debates program elements with Nicks, who has coached at every Winter Olympics since 1968. “If someone else picks your music and choreography, it’s not really what you like. By playing a part with those, I get exactly what I want in my program. It’s better for me to skate that way,” Cohen says, more confidently than cocky.
Their feuds are infused with reverence and respect. Even in debate, Cohen calls her mentor “Mr. Nicks.” The two seem to enjoy their sparring, and their close bond is evident.
Cohen, who began skating at age 7 and eight years later captured the silver medal at the January 2000 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, now plans to shock the skating world and be the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. “I’m always trying to push the envelope, create challenges and do new things, “ Cohen says.
“Women never try the quad. Men do it all the time. It’s something that I can do, I have done and will work hard to do at the Olympics,’’ Cohen says.
Spoken like a true teenage Carmen with her eye on the gold.