At the U.S. national figure skating championships 10 years ago a
quick, cruel whack above the kneecap propelled Nancy Kerrigan,
Tonya Harding and their ostensibly refined sport into the belly
of the beast: America's unquenchable appetite for the bizarre and
outrageous. The subsequent ratings boom at the Olympics led to a
period of unprecedented growth in the sport. A lead pipe had
launched a golden age.
A decade later the boom is going bust, as unsensationalist
behavior by the skaters has softly killed the appetite of the
casual fan. Good citizen Michelle Kwan (think of Pete Sampras on
skates) has kept new faces at bay, presiding over an era that has
been called, with mixed emotions, the Nice Age. The 23-year-old
Kwan's dominance continued last Saturday night in Atlanta, where
she won her eighth national title--and seventh in a row.
Unflappable as Bond, keeping her eyes on the 2006 Olympics and
the gold medal that to date has eluded her, Kwan remains at the
top of her game.
Meanwhile, Sasha Cohen, who could help create a series of
compelling confrontations from now until the Turin Games, is in
danger of becoming the Phil Mickelson of her sport. Talent? Good
Lord, she can put her body into positions you wouldn't wish on a
squid. She has sensational spins and spirals and all the
requisite jumps. But with her second-place finish in Atlanta, the
19-year-old Cohen has now finished behind Kwan three times at the
nationals. She can win the nonmajors (Cohen has won four
competitions this season), but when the stakes are highest, she
has a tendency to fall, as she did in Atlanta.
Robin Wagner believes she can change that. Formerly the coach of
2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes, Wagner started working with
Cohen on Dec. 24, after the skater's sudden parting with Russian
coach Tatiana Tarasova, an overbearing woman who instructed while
standing off the ice. Now Cohen has a coach who races her during
practice. "It's the process that's so vital because the moment of
success comes and goes," Wagner says. "I believe Sasha will get
to her destination if she enjoys her journey."
"We have that chemistry," says Cohen. "She's brought a lot of the
joy back into my skating, like when I was eight years old. We
just click." The skating world can only hope that their
relationship yields results. The advent of a true rivalry is the
sport's best chance for putting some fire back onto the
COLOR PHOTO: MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES (KWAN)
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BAZEMORE/AP (COHEN AND WAGNER) COLD COMFORT Can a new coach help Cohen dethrone Kwan?