<
>

Sasha Cohen wins U.S. title; Kwan to join her in Torino

ST. LOUIS -- Without ever putting her blades on the ice,
Michelle Kwan made the U.S. figure skating team heading to the
Torino Olympics -- with conditions.

While Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner grabbed the other two
slots with a 1-2 finish at the national championships Saturday
night, Kwan will have to prove she's fully recovered from a groin
injury and capable of competing before she gets final clearance.

Kwan was picked after petitioning U.S. Figure Skating. And by a
vote of 20-3, a selection committee gave the nine-time U.S. and
five-time world champion a medical bye.

"I am very happy that U.S. Figure Skating approved my petition
to be nominated to the Olympic Team. At the same time I can
empathize with how Emily must be feeling because I was in a similar
situation in 1994," Kwan, who was in California, said in a
statement.

"I appreciate the faith that U.S. Figure Skating has placed in
me. I am confident that I will be fully ready to compete at the
Olympics and look forward to representing the USA in Torino."

Kwan made it ahead of third-place finisher Emily Hughes, who was
designated an alternate along with Katy Taylor.

"We looked at basically the Olympic selection criteria we're
dealing with ... and we had a healthy discussion," said Bob Horen,
chairman of the International Committee that made the decision. "... We felt she had a better chance to medal."

Kwan finished second at the 1994 national championships, but she
was left off the team when Nancy Kerrigan was given a medical bye.

And Kwan can't start packing for Torino yet. If a five-member
committee decides Kwan isn't healthy or fit enough to skate by Jan.
27, she would be replaced by Hughes. If Hughes can't go or has had
to replace somebody else, Taylor would take the spot.

"Based on her petition to us, Michelle has offered to have a
monitoring session that we will conduct prior to the 27th of
January ... and we will determine whether she's ready to compete."

Now Kwan has another shot at that elusive gold medal. She has a
silver from the Nagano Olympics and a bronze from Salt Lake City.

Though she's skated sparingly over the last few years and was
fourth at the world championships in March, she's been the face of
figure skating for the last decade. And while she may not be the
same skater who went to Nagano and Salt Lake City as the gold-medal
favorite, she remains a contender.

Even though she finished fourth at worlds, only Cohen has higher
scores under the sport's new judging system. Hughes' best finish at
an international event was a bronze medal at last year's junior
worlds.

The committee also had a report from a doctor, who examined Kwan
on Thursday. The Olympic silver and bronze medalist jumped Friday
for the first time since Dec. 17.

Cohen didn't need any help from the selection committee. She
earned it all on her own with her very first national title. She
finished with 199.18 points, more than 28 points ahead of second
place Kimmie Meissner.

"I've got a lot of silvers in different shoeboxes in storage
units all over the place. But I think the gold one will have a
special place," said Cohen, who couldn't take her eyes off the
medal during the awards ceremony.

She's a breathtaking mix of athleticism, grace and beauty. But
she didn't have the psyche to match, finishing second twice at the
world championships and four times -- all to Kwan -- at nationals. At
the 2002 Olympics, she was third after the short program but
dropped to fourth overall.

Trying to find some solution, Cohen left longtime coach John
Nicks and her Southern California home for the East Coast in 2002,
training first with Tatiana Tarasova and then Robin Wagner. But the
change in scenery didn't change her results.

It wasn't until she returned home in December 2004 and reunited
with Nicks that Cohen discovered she'd had what she needed all
along right inside of her. She began focusing more on her training
and performance than the final placement, and the difference is
plain to see.

Though she missed three days of practice after coming down with
the flu last weekend and was clearly exhausted at the end of her
4-minute program to "Romeo and Juliet," Cohen was a pure delight
Saturday night.

"I have not done this version in competition and I haven't done
this run-through since last Friday," Cohen said. "It's been eight
days so I said, `OK, let's see what happens."'

She did seven triples, four in combination. But it's her
presentation that sets her apart. She doesn't skate so much as
float, and her expressions told of all the pain and heartache that
Juliet felt.

When she spins, she looks like that ballerina in the music box.
And when she did her spiral sequence, about 30 seconds of skating
on one leg, the other held high above her head, the audience gasped
in delight.

Her only mistakes were step outs on a triple toe loop jump and
triple salchow, both minor. Especially since she was the only woman
in the last warmup to complete her program without taking a spill
on the ice.

"I really tried to stay in the moment," Cohen said. "I
haven't done that program in long time, it's nice it turned out
that well."

Meissner did some of the toughest tricks of the night with seven
triple jumps, four of which were in combination. But there was
little in between the jumps, and her spins were slow and far from
Olympic class.

And, with 15 seconds left in her program, the girl whose
trademark is a triple axel fell on a double.

Still, Meissner looked pleased when she finished, clapping her
hands and grinning as she skated off the ice.

"I'm very pleased with my performance, I felt I gave it all I
had," Meissner said. "I'm sort of relaxed, but if I could, I
would like to do the last element again."