The women's event in the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships kicks off in Spokane tonight, and if you don't follow the sport outside of the Olympic games you probably won't see as many familiar faces as you're accustomed to. The competitive lifespan of most skaters normally overlaps about 2 Olympic years, but this year in the United States our women's field is abnormally lacking in international experience. Does this mean that our competitors in the women's event will be bad? Not by any means. However I would without hesitation classify this a ‘rebuilding' year for our women. We are ripe with young talent, most of whom are a longshot for a medal in Vancouver. Though we will definitely not have the handful of veterans that you may be used to, there is at least one exception.
You may remember Sasha Cohen from the 2002 and 2006 Olympics as the girl with the gift who never quite made it to the top. I will not speculate on why Cohen never achieved an Olympic gold or won a world title, but the fact remains that she was a dominating figure in the sport for a period of about 5 years. Cohen left the sport following a bronze medal at the 2006 World Championships to pursue other interests (did anyone see her in Blades of Glory or Project Runway?) and is returning to competition in the ladies short program tonight.
Cohen's comeback has not been without struggle and controversy. She was scheduled to compete in two Grand Prix events this season including Skate America but withdrew from both at the last minute due to a nagging calf injury. Figure skating insiders (and snarky bloggers who shall remain nameless) have given her 50/50 odds at best of even making it to Nationals, let alone skating well, but reports from her 40-minute practice session yesterday afternoon were promising. Cohen landed 10 clean triple jumps, some in combination, with one fall on a triple flip.
Here are just a handful of reasons to believe in Sasha Cohen.
So much of the doubt surrounding her comeback has to do with the fact that she has not had the opportunity to perform in front of judges or an audience, but a major part of her (or probably any skater's) preparation involves ‘dress rehearsals' in front of qualified judges who evaluate and critique all aspects of her skating. Cohen has stated publicly that because of her work with these experts she is confident that her levels on spins, spirals, and footwork sequences are up to par with the top women in the United States. When a skater achieves the highest levels in these 3 areas they create room for a mistake or two in the jumping department.
A lot of folks think that the sport of figure skating itself has come a long way since Cohen last competed in 2006, and they're not wrong. Each year skaters find more ways to squeeze every last point out of their from their programs. Most of the highest scores since the Code of Points was adopted have been achieved in the past 2 seasons. However, it should be noted that 6 of the highest total scores in international competition belong to South Korean phenom Kim Yu Na; the 7th belongs to Sasha Cohen. The 197.60 she received at the Grand Prix of Canada in 2003 plugged into the U.S. Nationals last year would have won.........by over 20 points. To put this number in perspective, she could have ‘sat down' on 3 triple jumps and still won.
To look at the numbers even more closely, most of Cohen's ‘flawed' performances (those with 1 or 2 missed jumps) gave her total scores averaging in the 180's. Most of her top competitors at Nationals have fallen 10-20 points short of this mark on even their best days during the 2009-2010 season:
Rachael Flatt (174.91 at Skate America)
Alissa Czisny (163.53 at Skate Canada)Mirai Nagasu (156.83 at Skate Canada)
Ashley Wagner (163.97 at Rostelcom Cup)
Caroline Zhang (153.15 at Trophee Eric Bompard)
Emily Hughes (135.31 at Skate America)
And what about the unbelievable pressure on each participant in the women's field to deliver a knockout performance in an Olympic year? Imagine for a moment if the Superbowl only happened every 4 years and only two players in the NFL got to participate. With only one or two exceptions, none of the contenders in the women's event have faced the pressure of skating for an Olympic berth. This is Cohen's third time at bat, and if anyone can handle it, she can.
So who will win the two Olympic spots should Cohen's comeback end in disaster? I can't even begin to guess. Any of the 6 ladies above is capable of rising to the challenge. Rachael Flatt has been the highest scoring and most consistent woman in the U.S. for the past two seasons. Alissa Czisny and Mirai Nagasu are reigning and former national champions and supreme talents in their own right. Ashley Wagner and Caroline Zhang showed enormous potential on the Grand Prix circuit this Fall, and Emily Hughes is the only skater other than Cohen with Olympic experience in her corner.
I am ready for a free-for-all and rooting for Sasha.