Lots of off-ice drama at this year's nationals

ST. LOUIS -- Michelle Kwan, don't pack your bags for Torino just yet.

Sasha Cohen, who has always been skating's bridesmaid, performed a dramatic and exceptionally strong short program -- especially considering she spent most of the last week in bed with the flu -- to become the leader entering the final Saturday night.

"I know when I came down with it Saturday morning, and I couldn't even get out of bed, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't be sick,'" Cohen said. "'I've been taking every single vitamin. I've been going to bed every night at 9:30. How is this happening?'

"But you can't control what happens. You only have the option to respond to it. Everybody is faced with adversity and you have to handle it as best you can. From then on, I called every doctor, got every medicine I could, tried every remedy -- folklore, medicine from the pharmacy, rest, fluids," she said.

You'd never guess that from her passionate performance. And this from a skater who wasn't even trying triples in practice just days ago.

Cohen leads with 65.15 points, 6.04 points ahead of Emily Hughes, the kid sister of Olympic gold medalist Sarah. And Bebe Liang was the surprise of the night, nailing all of her jumps for her best showing at nationals for third place.

The women's final is Saturday, but Cohen pretty much cemented her selection to the Olympic team. Hughes wasn't perfect, but she made a strong case, too. Liang, a regular at nationals who has hibernated under the radar screen, is hoping to have her coming-out party when the lights are brightest.

"This is the right year to put it together," Liang said.

But for some of the other skaters who entered this event as contenders for the Olympic team, the results weren't what they had hoped for.

Kimmie Meissner, the "it" girl of the 2005 nationals, lacked spark and took a step in between her combination jump. Alissa Czisny, who had a breakthrough season, fell twice.

"I got a little ahead of myself," said Meissner, who has been hampered by a cold this week. "I didn't feel that bad after the mistake. I still got the combination off, but I had a little less energy."

Kwan, meanwhile, is at home in Los Angeles recuperating from a pulled groin muscle. She filed a petition to receive a medical bye so she can compete in the Olympics and said her doctors won't clear her to resume jumping until Friday.

Needless to say, her decision has sent skating into a Level 4 spin. Should the skating icon go to Torino or should an up-and-comer get a chance instead?

The champion earns an automatic berth to the Olympics. A committee of judges, athletes, coaches and officials will select the other two members. Kwan could make the team even if she spends this weekend watching nationals on TV.

"I don't know how this will come out, but I'll say it anyway," Cohen said. "I think the young girls would definitely be more excited to go to the Olympics. It's like your first trip to Disneyland. It's magic. I just hope as many people as possible can have that experience."

Yet when asked whether Kwan was one of the top three skaters in the United States, Cohen nodded and said, "Oh, definitely."

Kwan is the most decorated American skater and has transcended the sport into legendary status, but she hasn't competed all season -- aside from a fan-judged "American Idol"-style event -- and she hasn't been effective under the new scoring system.

The decision that will come Saturday night just might need a vote from Paula Abdul.

Most of the skaters who are in contention for the team were pretty diplomatic when asked about how they would feel if they were bumped in favor of Kwan.

"We came here to skate and that's what we're going to do," Hughes said.

But would any of them consider legal action if they find themselves in that predicament?

"You never know what's going to happen," Hughes said. "You know, the ice is slippery."

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.