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Cohen trying for third Olympics

Skater plans competitive return in Paris next month

Sasha Cohen dazzled in Turin at the 2006 Olympics, taking home the silver medal.
Sasha Cohen dazzled in Turin at the 2006 Olympics, taking home the silver medal. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(09/14/2009) - Faster, higher, stronger -- Sasha Cohen is embracing the Olympic motto with open arms.

"I'm not coming back to be as good as the old me; I'm coming back to push myself in ways I haven't before," the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, who is returning to competition after three seasons away, told a media assembly in Chicago over the weekend.

"I've realized that skating is my purpose in life for the moment. I miss that drive and intensity, that meaning to my day, the good times, the bad times, just the challenge. I realize I have 50 more years of my life to do other things, and I wasn't ready to start that just yet."

Cohen, who turns 25 on October 26, is re-embracing the training grind, challenging herself technically and pushing her skating -- and her body -- into new directions.

"[I'm] opening my eyes to the changes in the new [judging] system and the type of skating that's out there and challenging myself to do more difficult programs, faster stronger programs.

"I'm working with a new coach, Rafael Arutunian, in Lake Arrowhead [Calif.], and I've been working a lot on different technical things, jumps and certain specific technical exercises jumping-wise . . . right now, it's just the brunt of all the work and good days and not-so-good days, but I've been progressing every month, and I'm very excited for the coming season."

Cohen readily admits competing with the likes of the last two world champions, Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada, both still teenagers, is a tall order. Known for her charisma and spectacular spirals, the Californian usually didn't include triple-triple jump combinations in her programs. (She completed a triple toe loop-triple Salchow in her 2006 Olympic free skate.)

Since she won bronze at the 2006 world championships, her most recent competition, the International Judging System (IJS) has grown tougher. Technical specialists mercilessly scrutinize jump take-offs and rotations. Even the strongest athletes, like former world champions Miki Ando and Brian Joubert, have lost points on jumps that used to pass muster.

"I do have all my triples back, and I'm doing my triple sequence, and I'm still building up to do it all together, all the elements together in the long," Cohen said.

Cohen, who spent the majority of her career training under John Nicks with brief stints with Tatiana Tarasova and Robin Wagner, turned to Arutunian due mainly to his reputation as a jump master.

"Rafael is more of a technical coach, and we're working on a lot of specific exercises, a lot of Russian exercises. He's really pushing me on my speed and my technique," she said.

Cohen, who has concentrated on triple Salchows, double Axels and entertainment value the past three years as a Stars on Ice headliner, hopes a package of elegance, fine spins and inspiring choreography will lead her to a third Olympic appearance next February (she placed fourth in Salt Lake City in 2002). It is an attainable goal. As 22-year-old Alissa Czisny proved by winning the 2009 U.S. title, maturity can beat out younger, more athletic skaters, especially if they miss a jump or two.

"This is not a [judging] system of crossovers between jumps, this is a system where you're really rewarded for the complexity of turns and stuff in between," Cohen said.

"I think the biggest thing is its taking me a bit of time to build up to that workload that I used to do, and now I do even more than I did four years ago with the amount of skating, the time on the ice. . . Now I'm used to skating six days a week, three or four sessions a day. I did a lot of choreography last week, and I was on the ice five, six hours a day."

Cohen has curtailed her show schedule in order to focus on two upcoming Grand Prix events, Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris Oct. 15-18 and Skate America in Lake Placid Nov. 12-15. In the first, she'll square off against Kim, Asada and U.S. bronze medalist Caroline Zhang. In the second, she'll face Kim again, as well as U.S. silver medalist Rachael Flatt.

"My goal is for the Grand Prix to serve as practice and experience so that when I get to nationals, I've got everything in place and know exactly what I need to do to make the Olympics," she said.

"[Eric Bompard] is something for me to gear up, kind of something to push me, a goal, my first thing in the season to get ready for and then to see how the judges mark my elements, see what I need to change. It's feedback for me."

Nikolai Morozov, who coaches Ando and worked with Cohen to polish a free skate to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in Hackensack, N.J., last week, says Cohen's performing experience works in her favor.

"Her experience really helps her with the music," he said. "Sometimes the best choreography is just when she [improvises] to the music herself. Any skater grows up the most when they do professional [shows]."

About whether Cohen can make it back to the top, Morozov hedged.

"It depends on how good a condition she is in when she competes," he said. "Skaters [coming back] realize the mistakes they've made in the past, what was good, what was bad. They have to understand how their bodies don't always work in the same ways [as before].

"I'm glad Sasha and [Evgeni] Plushenko are coming back because it makes it more interesting. But it won't be easy for them under this [judging] system; things change all the time. In the men's, there are ten skaters [who] can win [Olympics]. In ladies there are three skaters who can do [clean] triple-triples."

Former coach Wagner, who trains Georgian Elene Gedevanishvili in Hackensack, welcomed Cohen's return to the competitive ranks.

"I saw her at Ice House. We had a little chat, and if its in her heart and its something she really feels she wants to try to achieve and get out there, just getting ready to participate would be a huge success for her," she said.

"It's good for the sport. It pushes the younger skaters a little bit, knowing Sasha might be back. I'm happy for her. I hope she can accomplish it."

While she's enjoying the new challenges her training brings, Cohen's eyes are set firmly on one prize: the Vancouver Olympics. This time around, the U.S. has just two ladies' spots, with no fewer than five or six top contenders.

"I definitely would be disappointed if I didn't make the Olympic team," Cohen admitted. "That's really the shining star that's inspiring me to come back.

"I really feel that if I work really hard and push myself and skate well I will be able to make the Olympic team and do well at the Olympics. That's my goal."