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A moment gone, and with it the gold medal for Cohen

Updated: 2006-02-24 11:00

TURIN, Italy (AP) -- Moments like this don't come often. Chances for redemption sometimes don't come at all.

Sasha Cohen took the ice Thursday night a favorite to win gold in the premier event of the Olympics. She left it with a forced smile, the moment having gotten the best of her once again.

The gold was gone on her first jump. She thought she lost both the silver and bronze on her second.

Four long years of training didn't prepare her for what turned out to be four of the longest minutes of her life.

The falls were shocking enough, winning a silver medal anyway almost a gift.

Still, she had hoped to be the third different American winner of women's figure skating in the last three Olympics. Instead, she will be remembered for one medal that got away.

That's because gold matters to Americans as much as it does to Cohen.

The sponsors were ready to put her on cereal boxes and in soft drink ads as America's new skating darling. By some estimates, $20 million in endorsements was at stake. Divide that by two falls and you have $10 million a fall on a night when the gold was there for the taking.

Figure skating is all about rising to the moment, and no place is that more magnified than at the Olympics.

Win, and you win the lottery. Lose, and you're just another pretty face on skates.

Unfortunately for Cohen, it's a story she knows well.

She came in burdened with a history of bombing when it counted. After winning the short program, she carried even higher expectations on the night when America finally paid attention to the Winter Olympics.

Four years ago she was in third place the final night as a 17-year-old and skated poorly to fall from medal contention. She lost nationals, too, after winning short programs and faltering when it really mattered.

But she thought she had put the failures behind her, and she was determined to do things her own way in Italy. Cohen trained far from teammates, avoided the media and even skipped practice on Wednesday when all her competitors were out doing their thing.

Her own coach shook his head, as if to say Cohen was going to do what she wants to do and there wasn't much anyone was going to do about it.

Indeed, she was going to win -- or lose -- on her own terms.

She knew she had to skate four nearly perfect minutes, but she also knew when she fell on a jump in her warmup and then nearly ran into another skater that this was not likely to be that night.

Just 15 seconds into her program she was already on her rear on the ice. On her next jump she ended up sprawling and having to grab the ice with both palms to keep from falling farther.

"I had a really tough time with my jumps in warmups," Cohen said. "It wasn't a surprise."

She skated well after that, but all that was left seemed to be to see how far she would drop in the standings behind eventual winner Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, who skated brilliantly just behind Cohen.

Cohen kept her composure off the ice, just as she did after she fell on it. She was proud that she had been able to come back from the falls and skate well.

"I was able to believe when everything looked very dark and gray," she said.

Still, Cohen had no illusions that it was good enough for a medal. She took off her skates, changed from her costume and got ready to congratulate the winners.

When the skaters after Arakawa faltered, she had to quickly put the costume back on and lace up her skates to take the medalists' curtain call.

"I definitely didn't think I was going to get any medal, so it was a surprise," she said.

Somewhere back home, meanwhile, Michelle Kwan had to be wondering what could have been.

Kwan was the rare skater who prospered despite never winning Olympic gold, but her career will always be noted for the lack of it. She cried in Nagano after winning a silver and in Salt Lake City after winning a bronze, but in between she won world and national championships by the handful.

She came to Turin hoping she would finally get that elusive gold. She left after a day knowing that her body would simply not give her one last chance.

Cohen seems even more fragile. She said a mixture of anti-inflammatories and Tylenol kept her going this week, but if she's feeling so much pain now and she's only 21 years old, how long can she keep skating?

The chance of her lifetime was here, and just as quickly it was gone.

Cohen has an agent and sponsors. She knows the riches that could have been her reward. She tried her best to put a positive spin on it all, but the words sounded hollow.

"Ultimately," she said, "it's four minutes of one day of my life."

It was, but it was the four biggest minutes of the biggest day Cohen will likely ever have.

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