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Cohen electrifies arena, takes second

LOS ANGELES -- As Michelle Kwan searches to recapture her
brilliance and joy, the answer is right there in Sasha Cohen.

Kwan was beautiful Thursday, which was enough to win the short
program in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But Cohen was the
one who electrified the arena, displaying the magic that once
belonged to Kwan.

"I trained really hard for this, so I'm really pleased with my
performance," Cohen said. "I don't think I really could have done
much better."

Kwan won seven judges, while Cohen and Angela Nikodinov each got
one. Sarah Hughes was a close third, and Nikodinov was fourth in
the incredibly strong event.

The free skate, worth two-thirds of the final score, is
Saturday. The top three skaters make the Olympic team.

"I think this was probably the most exciting group of short
programs, even going back to the world championships," said Robin
Wagner, Hughes' coach. "Everybody really skated with their hearts,
and in this particular competition, when we're trying to get on the
Olympic team, that's an extraordinary feat."

This has been the toughest season of Kwan's career. She's
struggled on the ice, and her decision in October to split with
longtime coach Frank Carroll is still a topic of debate.

So with the Olympics approaching, she's gone back to her 1998
short program to Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3. It brought chills
to those watching then and earned her seven perfect 6.0s, but this
version didn't have nearly the same emotion.

She didn't make any mistakes, and done by anyone else it would
have been a fantastic performance. But with five U.S. titles and
four world crowns, Kwan has set the bar so high.

"I've been practicing a lot and been practicing very well,"
she said. "If I had not been skating so well in practices, then
you sort of have to cross your fingers. You're not sure what you
will put out there."

But her footwork was slower and not as sharp as in 1998.
Instead, she looked as she did in her free skate at the Nagano
Olympics -- clean, but cautious. It seemed more like work, not the
pure joy she had in Philadelphia.

Not until her spiral sequence did she truly come alive, and the
fans responded. They began clapping as she glided across the ice,
and were standing even before she completed her final spin.

But the judges knew something was missing, too. While she earned
all 5.7s and 5.8s for required elements, and all but two 5.9s for
artistry, it wasn't Philadelphia.

That kind of skate came from Cohen, who was a surprise second to
Kwan at the 2000 nationals, but missed last year with a back
injury.

"It was really difficult because I wanted to be out there, but
I knew I had to rest," Cohen said. "I knew I had quite a while,
another year, and that I could do a lot of improvement in that
time. We just tried to make use of every minute of every session."

Wearing a simple white dress, Cohen looked like a swan with her
innate grace and elegance. She can hold the most unusual positions,
like her Charlotte spiral, where she bends down to touch one toe
while her other leg is extended high.

After her marks flashed, coach John Nicks grabbed Cohen's head
and held it up, like a boxer after a knockout.

"My young protege, the beautiful Ms. Cohen, when she skates
like this, everything is forgiven," Nicks said of his headstrong
skater.

But she has one more round to go. And Hughes and Nikodinov
aren't out of it.

Skating to "Ave Maria," Hughes was almost ethereal. Wagner was
so moved she was crying as the program finished.

"I was trying to stay really cool, but it was so nice to see,"
Wagner said. "It was so beautiful and she looked so gentle but so
sure of herself on the ice."

But Hughes changes the edge on the takeoff of her triple lutz,
turning it into a flip -- a "flutz." It showed in the marks for
required elements, which ranged from 5.5 to 5.8.

"That would be my thought, but until I speak to the judges, I'm
not sure," Wagner said. "I thought everything else was very
strong."

Her artistic marks were higher, but not enough to put her ahead
of Kwan and Cohen. The audience booed, but Hughes just shrugged her
shoulders.

"I couldn't have done any better," she said. "My focus is
just entirely on the free skate. Tonight is worth one-third, but
Saturday night really is worth 100 percent."

Nikodinov is skating with a broken heart after the sudden death
of her coach and mentor, Elena Tcherkasskaia. Nikodinov was once a
talented, but undisciplined skater, and Tcherkasskaia found a way
to unlock her enormous potential.

"Everything takes time and you can't expect one day to wake up
and expect everything to be fine," Nikodinov said. "I just have
to be strong. I know she's looking down on me and is proud of me."

And though Tcherkasskaia's gone, her influence clearly remains.
Nikodinov's only real problem was a swingy landing on her triple
flip.

The crowd roared when she finished her program, giving her an
even longer ovation than Kwan. As she left the ice, Nikodinov
turned back to the crowd once more, waving and putting her hand on
her chest as if to say, "Thank you."

"I felt a lot of support," she said. "It's been a long
season, and I will just look forward."