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Cohen back with a bang

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Sasha Cohen isn't what one would call a submissive li'l thang.

The 17-year-old figure skater turned heads the last time she was in Salt Lake City, when she won the junior title at the 1999 U.S. Championships.

Even then, she was confident. Ambitious. Driven.

Then, she was gone.

A back injury kept her out of commission for nearly a year. But in true Cohen style, when she finally took the ice again, she did it with a bang — announcing she wanted not just to return to competitive skating but that she wanted to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.

"I can do it," she said back in October. "It's not just something out there that I'm trying to get. And I think it would be amazing to make figure skating history. Hopefully, at the end of the season, I'll have it."

She tried, for most of the season. Unsuccessfully.

Mistakes and poor results kept Cohen in the periphery of the media's Olympic medals projections, behind Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes and occasionally Angela Nikodinov.

Reporters and fans speculated about Cohen and talked about Cohen — but didn't know what to expect from the tiny spitfire. Until last month, that is.

The 2002 national championships, held in Los Angeles, also served as the Olympic trials. The top three finishers there would represent the U.S. here in Salt Lake City.

"It was the considered opinion by 'experts' that Sasha and Angela were struggling for third," said Cohen's coach, two-time Olympian John Nicks. "Neither Sasha nor I agreed with that."

As it happened, neither did the judges, who placed Cohen squarely between Kwan and Hughes. With beyond-her-years balleticism — and more consistent, quad-free programs — Cohen didn't just eke her way onto the team. She bulldozed, oozing confidence and competitive fire.

"It's really exciting," Cohen said. "It's been a dream for a long time, and it's almost like, kind of I've been training so hard that I almost a little bit expected to go. Now that it's for sure, it's so exciting."

As it is for Nicks, who has coached American skating luminaries like Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Christopher Bowman.

Coaching Cohen is what has kept him at the boards, day after day. At 72, Nicks could just as soon retire.

"Without Ms. Cohen, I doubt very much I'd be in the coaching business," he said during a telephone interview. "Sasha is someone who gives me the excitement and energy to get up and get to the rink in the morning."

Nicks admits he and Cohen sometimes have their differences, and he teases her often in press conferences. But at the end of the day, Nicks said he genuinely likes working with Cohen.

More importantly, he believes she is Olympic medal-caliber material.

"As consistent as she has proven herself to be in practice, with the outstanding and unique talent that she has, and the fact that she is going in as the second-ranked skater on the American ladies' team, I really feel that she is a legitimate medal contender," he said.

To reach the podium, however, she'll have to get past what is arguably one of the deepest ladies' fields in Olympic history.

In the end, Nicks predicted a U.S.-Russian showdown.

"I think when you get to the final warm-up in the finals of the ladies' competition, you will see skaters from the United States and Russia," he said. "I believe it will be three Russians against three Americans. And whoever gets out there and avoids mistakes will end up on the podium."

Which is why his voice smiles over the phone line when he talks about Cohen's practice that day.

"She had a wonderful practice today," he said. "A lot of competitive figure skaters have to train to peak at the right time. We set a goal to peak for the three big competitions: nationals, the Olympics and World Championships.

"So far, so good."

E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com