The 2002-03 Season: Sasha Cohen

A familiar sight this season Sasha with gold
Photo by Michelle Harvath

"When I go to Washington I'll be looking at putting out my personal best, because that's something I feel I haven't really done this season." - Sasha Cohen

Looking at Sasha Cohen's list of accomplishments headed into the 2003 World Championships, one might have thought she was crazy to say she hadn't had her personal best. After all, in just a few short months she had collected a string of titles - Skate Canada, Trophee Lalique, Crest Whitestrips Challenge and ISU Grand Prix Final.

But Cohen is more in tune with her strengths and weaknesses than anyone else. And despite the gold medals, she knew her goal of two clean programs in an event was still out there. A skater with seemingly unending flexibility and personal style on and off the ice, Cohen still struggled with the consistency of some her jumps. Working closely with new coach Tatiana Tarasova to conquer that inconsistency was at the top of her list of goals, and with each competition she attempted to take a step in that direction. Here's a look back ...

Coaching Change

Cohen's season in many ways began in August of 2002 when she announced she was leaving longtime coach John Nicks to train with Tatiana Tarasova and Nikoli Morozov in Connecticut. It was a big switch for the West Coast gal, who appeared by the California beach on the August/September 2002 cover of SKATING. Part of the motivation for the move was to obtain better training conditions. The conditions of the rink and the limited availability of competitive ice time at her California facility no longer met Cohen's needs.

"I appreciate the help that Mr. Nicks has provided," Cohen said last August. "He has taught me that with hard work and disciplined training, there is no limit to what you can accomplish. I am grateful to Mr. Nicks for his coaching help over the last several years."

As the year progressed, Cohen said that Tarasova pushed her in the rink "to a level she didn't know existed." She also added that Tarasova worked with her on becoming more focused and fighting harder in competitions.

"When I'm with Tatiana, I'm a lot more prepared for competition," Cohen said. "It's a lot more intense regimen."

Cohen's impressive flexibility
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla
Campbell's International Figure Skating Classic
Cohen opened her season - sort of - at the Campbell's International Figure Skating Classic Oct. 5. She had already performed her new free skate to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 twice at events in early fall.

Cohen's performance at Campbell's was hot and cold. She was the only woman to land a clean triple-triple sequence (triple toe-half loop-triple Salchow), but she had a couple of errors including a fall on a triple Lutz. One of her strengths - her spinning ability - was off as well as she almost sat down on her back sit spin. She finished in fourth place, and it was the last time she would finish out of the top three at an event until the World Championships.

Skate Canada

Although Cohen's season didn't end the way she had hoped, it certainly started exactly as she wanted. With Tarasova by her side for her first Grand Prix event of the season, Skate Canada, Cohen staked her claim as a contender for major titles down the road.

At the Colisee Pepsi Arena in Quebec, Cohen wasn't perfect, but it was enough to beat World bronze medalist Fumie Suguri and Russia's Viktoria Volchkova for gold - her first ever in a Grand Prix event.

She stumbled in her short program footwork, which Tarasova called a "lapse," but she received a standing ovation for an otherwise beautiful performance. Her presentation and connecting moves were outstanding, including a gorgeous Charlotte.

Cohen called her free skate "a good starting point" for the season. As usual, her flexibility and artistry were both lovely, but she fell on a triple toe that was intended to be part of her triple-triple sequence.

At the Rockefeller Center opening Oct. 21
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla
Trophee Lalique

It turns out her Skate Canada gold was just the beginning. Once again she charmed the French audience at Trophee Lalique, but while she finished with the bronze in 2001, this time she collected the gold.

While Cohen led the whole way in Canada, she had to come from behind in Paris after falling on her double Axel in the short program.

"It was a silly mistake," she said. "I did not go with enough attack into it."

Japan's Yoshie Onda had the early lead and had a triple Axel planned for the free skate. But after Onda had trouble with both the Axel and a triple Lutz, the door was wide open for Cohen.

"I was not feeling 100% tonight," Cohen said after making a few technical mistakes in the free skate, "but it was an important performance for me. Tatiana was happy. Tonight I was a fighter out there, and it is something that she admired.

Cohen kept up her determination during the free skate despite a few minor mistakes on the landings of her jumps. Of course, she earned applause for her grace and wide open spirals. Her presentation marks, which were all in the 5.7-5.9 range, clearly reflected her strong style and she moved ahead of Onda to win the gold.

At a fall exhibition
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla
Cup of Russia

All eyes were on Moscow for the Cup of Russia for more than one reason. Sure, fans wanted to see if Cohen could continue her string and pick up another gold, but they were also eager to see the return of Irina Slutskaya. Neither the reigning World champion nor Cohen made a mistake in the short - a good sign considering Cohen had some blade problems.

"I had to sharpen them the day of the competition, but I did not feel comfortable with them," said Cohen, who finished behind Slutskaya in the short. "But what does not kill you makes you stronger."

She hit six clean triples in the free skate, and despite the fact that she finished second (to Volchkova), she said it was her best performance of the season.

"Of course I would have liked to win here, but I am happy to come back to Russia for the [Grand Prix] Final," Cohen said.

Crest Whitestrips International Figure Skating Challenge

Before the Grand Prix Final, however, Cohen had two other competitions to focus on - the Crest Whitestrips International Figure Skating Challenge and the 2003 State Farm U.S. Championships.

Cohen dominated the competition in Auburn Hills, Mich., for the Crest Whitestrips event. She sparkled in her free skate, landing seven triples including her triple toe-half loop-triple Salchow combination. She received all first-place marks, besting both Slutskaya and Sarah Hughes.

"I haven't had much time to train for this event so I pulled this out mentally," she said. "My goal is to skate better in every performance and become a better competitor."

U.S. Championships
Photo by Michelle Harvath
State Farm U.S. Championships

Keeping focused and fighting through programs was an important goal for Cohen, who began training solely with Tarasova in December. Despite the fact that she had won three events heading into Dallas, it was difficult to say if she was the favorite to win gold at the U.S. Championships. She certainly was one of the favorites, but with Michelle Kwan returning to go after her seventh U.S. title, nothing was certain.

Gold medals aside, Cohen knew that she had yet to skate two clean programs during the season, and she was well aware that consistency is one of the hallmarks of champions. Nevertheless, she still felt good about her chances to win her first U.S. title.

"We all want the title," Cohen said just days before the start of the event. "We've all been working very hard at home. We'll just wait to see who skates the best that night."

Unfortunately for Cohen, it didn't turn out to be her time to gain the crown.

Following the short program, Cohen was in second place after skating a flawed performance that included a stumble on her double toe on the end of her triple Lutz-double toe combination. High presentation marks in the 5.7-5.9 range were enough to take second from all nine judges.

"It's always difficult to come back after a bobble," Cohen said. "It wasn't the perfect performance. I landed all my Lutzes pretty well this week. That one kind of came out of nowhere, but you gotta adjust. I'm still in the top three, and I'm just going to really focus in on the long."

Backstage warming up for the free skate at the U.S. Championships

Last year Hughes placed third behind Cohen, but this year they flip-flopped and Cohen won her first U.S. bronze medal. Cohen made several errors throughout her Rachmaninoff free skate including two-footing her triple toe on the back of her triple Lutz-triple toe combination. She fell on a triple toe (intended to be the beginning of her triple-triple sequence) and two-footed her solo triple Salchow. She was only able to complete four clean triples, and her usual spark was missing.

Not surprisingly, Cohen was visibly upset with her third-place finish.

"I had a good strong first half and I was kind of disappointed with the end," Cohen said. "I should have done it. I wish I could go out and do it again, but I can't. ... I can't really give you an answer why it was not the performance that I wanted, but I gotta go home, take this with me and work harder and not let that happen again."

ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final

There was no rest for Cohen between the U.S. Championships and the World Championships. Instead she held the torch for the entire U.S. Team as the only American at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in St. Petersburg, Russia.

With her Ukrainian background, her understanding of the language, her Russian coach and even her name, Cohen probably felt comfortable despite being the lone U.S. representative. She felt more at home after becoming the only non-Russian to win, surprising Slutskaya in her home country.

A winning smile
Photo by Paul Harvath

While Slutskaya may have had the public behind her, there were two signs that stood out from the others at the St. Petersburg Ice Palace for Cohen: "Sasha - Nash Chempion (Our Champion)" read one and "Sasha Cohen - Udachi (Success)'' read the other.

She delighted the Russian reporters in a press conference when she noticed a mistake in the translation of her remarks.

"That's not what I said," she countered in understandable Russian. She later answered some questions in Russian, adding that she was a little self-conscious about speaking in broken Russian.

She won the short program over Slutskaya, but finished behind the Russian World champion in the first free skate when she had a few problems in her "Carmen" program from the 2001-02 season. Cohen rallied and held up in her second free skate despite minor glitches. She singled a loop and had to improvise a combination at the end of the program.

"I was thinking, 'You need this combination; you need this jump,'" Cohen said. That is a thing that can either make it or break it. I'm glad I made it."

Her free skate was good enough to pass Slutskaya and make Cohen the Grand Prix Final champion - the first American to win the final since Tara Lipinski won in 1998.

World Championships

Before the World Championships in Washington, D.C., Cohen said the ladies World title was "up for grabs."

Cohen was working with Tarasova specifically on not focusing on beating any particular person and on improving her consistency.

"I would love to get a World title, but ... I'm focusing on each element, one by one, and doing two clean programs."

With coach Tatiana Tarasova at the World Championships
Photo by Debra Scarbrough

Cohen began the competition well with a clean qualifying program to finish third in her group behind Kwan and Elena Sokolova. She completed seven triples, and her only bobble came during footwork in one of the corners when she slid a little.

"I finally did it and it felt good," she said of doing a clean free skate. "In the last couple of weeks, I've been practicing how to mentally prepare and it worked. It was a program that I'm really happy with."

Cohen and Volchkova were tied for fourth place overall after the short program (they tied for fifth in the short). Cohen easily completed her triple Lutz-double toe combination but fell landing her triple flip.

"I'm very disappointed in my skating because I wanted to win the short," she said. "I've done clean shorts all season and haven't missed this jump in two years. I was nervous about the Lutz, but not the flip and was shocked when I fell."

After the free skate, Cohen ended up just off the podium in fourth place, although she was third in the free skate. She had some problems in the program, falling on her camel spin and on the triple toe, but she still felt positive about the competition.

"I'm disappointed about not moving up, but I still accomplished two of my goals here," she said. "I skated a clean long program in qualifying and landed my triple-triple for the first time in competition (during the free skate)."

Worlds exhibition
Photo by Michelle Wojdyla
Wrapping it Up

Cohen finished her season at the ABC Sports International Figure Skating Challenge in Bridgeport, Conn. She competed without Tarasova, who couldn't attend. Instead Cohen had her mother, Galina, at the boards with her in practice.

"She said, 'Oh, I'm surprised I wasn't nervous,'" Cohen said. "[I said] 'Mom, it's no big deal. It's just practice.' She's there with me every day at the rink so she knows what's going on."

Cohen finished third behind Kwan and Suguri.

After touring with Champions on Ice, Cohen is training hard for the season, which includes an appearance at Smart Ones Skate America.

That's it for the 2002-03 season recaps - just in time for the start of a new year!

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