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You can call me Alex: Cohen embraces normalcy

Former Olympic silver medalist plays rugby, studies at Columbia

It was 10 years ago in Salt Lake City when Sasha Cohen skated at her first Olympics.
It was 10 years ago in Salt Lake City when Sasha Cohen skated at her first Olympics. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(03/06/2012) - Sasha Cohen's competitive skating career might be over, but that doesn't mean she's no longer pursuing athletic goals.

It just might surprise you what athletic endeavors she's up to these days.

The Olympic silver medalist recently signed up for the women's rugby league at Columbia University.

Yes, you read that correctly: One of figure skating's most graceful artists is going to be in a sport known for scrums.

"It is tag rugby," Cohen said in a telephone interview. "I'm disappointed we can't tackle."

That isn't the only change for Cohen, who enrolled at Columbia last fall. When she is on campus at the New York City university, Cohen goes by the name "Alex" instead of "Sasha." Born as Alexandra Pauline Cohen, she quickly took on the moniker "Sasha," which is a common Russian nickname for "Alexandra." But after 27 years of being known as "Sasha," Cohen decided to use "Alex" as her collegiate name.

"It was always kind of a hassle to tell people my name is Alexandra but I go by Sasha," she explained. "At first, I had a hard time responding when people would say, 'Alex,' but not so much anymore."

For the most part, Alex Cohen fits right in on campus. When she is in class, she said, she feels like a typical Columbia student. But when she leaves class, she knows she is not always like her classmates. In addition to her classwork, which is rigorous at the Ivy League school, she has to continue her training as a figure skater (she trains at Chelsea Piers), make time for media interviews and spend many of her weekends performing with the Stars on Ice tour.

This past weekend, for example, she flew from New York to California so she could perform Saturday in Anaheim and Sunday in San Jose. She took the red eye back to New York so she could return to class. This weekend, she's off to Pittsburgh and Chicago. The U.S. tour ends May 18 in Hershey, Pa. A lot of Cohen's studying is done on the plane rides, but she did finish midterms before heading to California, which made life a little bit easier.

She is taking classes in international economics and psychology this semester and wants to pursue a career in finance, perhaps in marketing for a hedge fund.

"I love being at Columbia," she said. "I love being around such bright and motivated people every day."

Occasionally, she has been recognized on campus as Sasha, noting that someone approached her for an autograph when she was in the cafeteria. But it's not the first time Columbia has had a figure skater on campus. Cohen's friend and 2002 U.S. Olympic teammate, Tim Goebel, is a recent graduate. Goebel, too, has said he could slip into skating anonymity on campus.

New York has been a huge part of Cohen's attraction to the school. She has taken advantage of being close to Broadway and recently saw How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Venus in Fur, and this week has tickets to Death of a Salesman.

Although Cohen had spent some time in New York prior to becoming a student, this is the first time she has lived in the city for an extended period of time.

Because of her fast-paced lifestyle these days, she has not had much time to keep up with the competitive side of figure skating. She is excited about the success of Ashley Wagner, who won the 2012 U.S. Championships championship and the Four Continents Championships and trains with Cohen's longtime coach, John Nicks. She also was happy for pairs skaters Rockne Brubaker and Mary Beth Marley, who also train with Nicks and will join Wagner later this month at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice, France.

"I am so out of the loop," she said. "I don't even have a TV in my apartment."

She is, thanks to friend Johnny Weir, a newcomer to the Twitter world, however, but admitted that sometimes she updates her Twitter account (@sashacohenNYC) several times in a day, and sometimes several days go by without an update.

"I'm still learning," she said with a laugh.

She did not need any electronic devices or social media to see some competitive skaters this past weekend. While she was in California, she visited her old stopping grounds, skating a session at Nicks' rink in Aliso Viejo.

"It was nice to see everyone," Cohen said. "It was fun to see Mr. Nicks. I don't think he's changed a bit."

On tour, Cohen is performing to the sultry Cuban music "Do Gardenias" by Buena Vista Social Club, and "Big Spender" by Nicola Hughes and Shirley Bassey.

She also has performed in other events, including "Caesars Tribute II: A Salute to the Ladies of the Ice," which was held in Atlantic City, N.J. (and later broadcast on NBC), and featured Olympic champions Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes and two-time Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan among others.

Cohen seems to have the right balance between skating and school. She doesn't miss competing saying, "I competed long enough and had a lot of good experiences, but I missed out on my education."

Still, it's hard for her to believe that it's been a decade since she competed in her first Olympic Winter Games back in Salt Lake City in 2002. She finished fourth there and laughs when reminded about sitting next to then U.S. President George Bush at the Opening Ceremony and putting him on her cell phone to say hi to her mother.

She was back in Salt Lake City last month as the Stars on Ice tour performed a 10th anniversary show in the building where Cohen competed.

"It's hard to believe that that time has come and gone," she said. "Being there was nostalgic and sad. I was walking in the locker room and the hallways. There was a lot of emotion in that building."

Four years after those Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Cohen returned to the Olympics and came home from Torino, Italy, with a silver medal.

She's at a different stage of her life now, but hey, she could make a return to the Olympic Games. After all, rugby has been added to the Olympic program for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Then again, maybe Cohen will keep her rugby talents in New York City.

For now, she's content with life on campus and her time on tour.

"I enjoy the musical pieces, and it's nice to keep performing," Cohen said. "I appreciate the applause and the spotlight."

And the fact that she can come home and just be Alex Cohen, the rugby player.