Originally created 03/03/03

Cohen heads for worlds with first major title



ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Sasha Cohen heads to the World Figure Skating Championships with the skill and flair she's long had, plus something new: the steely confidence of a champion.

Cohen finally answered questions about her inconsistency with a huge victory in the Grand Prix Final on Saturday, beating reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya. Not even Michelle Kwan could defeat Slutskaya at the Grand Prix Final in the last three years, and Cohen did it on Slutskaya's home turf, no less.

Cohen finished her demanding free skate with a triple-double combination to vault past Slutskaya, who managed just five triple jumps in a flawed program.

Now comes another question: Can Cohen build on her momentum?

"There's no guarantees," she said. "You have to work for everything you get."

She's been working for this victory for what seems like years.

Though Cohen is one of the most talented skaters in the world, she's been shadowed by inconsistency the past few seasons. But a cross-country trip last summer has given her new determination.

Cohen spent almost her entire career with John Nicks, training near her hometown of Laguna Niguel, Calif. But after working with Tatiana Tarasova, Olympic gold medalist Alexei Yagudin's coach, for two days last summer, the 19-year-old Cohen decided she needed a change.

She could get better ice time at Tarasova's facility in Connecticut, and she liked the discipline and focus of the Russian style of training.

It wasn't long before Tarasova's influence was showing. With Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes sitting out the Grand Prix season because of a knee injury and seven-time U.S. champion Kwan only competing at Skate America, Cohen dominated the year's early events.

She won her first major competition of the season, Skate Canada. Two weeks later, she captured the title at Trophee Lalique.

She finished second at Cup of Russia, but rebounded to win the International Figure Skating Challenge, beating a field that included Hughes and Slutskaya.

But then came more disappointment. Though she went to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships as one of the favorites because of her strong showing at the Grand Prixs, Cohen faltered again.

Second after the short program, she did only five clean triples in the free skate and fell once. She finished third.

But she pulled it all together at the Grand Prix final. Not even the grueling first day, which includes a short program and a free skate, could throw her. The next major challenge are the world championships, which begin March 24 in Washington, D.C.

Slutskaya, the Olympic silver medalist, said the two-day schedule and an undisclosed personal problem contributed to her poor showing.

"I understood that there are (other) things that are really important in this life," she said.

If the Grand Prix Final left the prospects for the women's worlds wide open, it reinforced Russia's near-overwhelming presence in the other events.

Evgeny Plushenko is the only skater to complete a quad-triple-triple, and his execution of it in St. Petersburg showed it is now a reliable part of his program.

Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh are tops in ice dancing, while Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov are tough challengers.

Grand Prix pairs winners Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin have become top performers, while bronze medalists Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov showed they still are contenders.

Cohen is also benefiting from the Russian style, thanks to Tarasova. She had some fans of her own in St. Petersburg, even though she was skating in Slutskaya's home country.

Several fans hung Russian-language posters around the Ice Arena lauding Cohen, whose mother is Ukrainian. One called her "our champion."

"I don't know who did them," she said, "but I liked that part."