Cohen in second place in short program

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Sasha Cohen can still put on a show like nobody else.

And bring the house down.

Skating for the first time since the 2006 world championships, the Olympic silver medalist skated with her trademark elegance and smoothness and showed she is not to be taken lightly -- here and, if she keeps skating like this, at the Vancouver Olympics. The women's final is Saturday.

"I'm so happy to be out here," said Cohen, whose score of 69.63 is slightly behind 2008 national champion Mirai Nagasu and just ahead of Rachael Flatt. "It was really a special night for me."

The folks in the arena would say much the same thing.

The United States has been desperately seeking someone to fill Cohen's considerably large skates since she went on her hiatus. The Americans haven't won a world medal since '06 and fared so poorly at last year's world championships they have only two spots in Vancouver. It's only the second time since 1924 the Americans have failed to have the maximum.

But as Cohen reminded everyone Thursday, the original is always better than any substitute.

"This is a really special time in my life," Cohen said. "I just wasn't quite ready to say goodbye."

Wearing a crimson dress with beautiful lace bodice that looked more couture than costume, Cohen acknowledged she had some nerves when she took the ice. She could be seen singing along to Britney Spears as she waited for her name to be called. When her "Espana Cani" music started, though, she was all business.

Her triple lutz-double toe loop combination was solid, and she tossed off her triple flip with ease, something she wasn't always able to do.

As always, though, it's the show that sets Cohen apart.

She headlined the "Stars on Ice" tour during her break, and it has only sharpened her performance skills. Her spirals are, if possible, even more impressive than before, and the audience probably would have been happy just to see those. She did a forward Charlotte, extending her leg so her body is in the full splits and her upper body is touching her skating leg, that had the audience whooping and whistling.

And as she began her footwork, she gave the fans in the front row a saucy little smile as if to say, "Missed me, didn't you?"

"I came back because I missed it and I love being here," Cohen said. "I really, really appreciate the people that have come to care about me and cheer me on and just the personal struggles I've overcome to be here. That gives me a lot of faith and confidence in my skating."

Oh, people care, standing well before her music finished. As Cohen stood at center ice, soaking in the adoration, longtime coach John Nicks thrust his arms in the air.

"I enjoy her skating so much," Nicks said. "I didn't come here for ego or because I enjoy nationals. I came here to watch her skate."

Now she needs to do it again to make her third Olympic team.

The knock on Cohen has always been holding it together when the stakes are highest. She has yet to do clean short and long programs in the same major event, costing herself who knows how many titles, and there will be no room for error Saturday with less than a point separating the top three women.

"It was a good start, an extraordinarily good start," Nicks said. "But that's all it was. The rest of the job has to be done Saturday."

Cohen's performance will overshadow that of Nagasu, even though it was excellent.

Nagasu gave the U.S. women some spunk and pizazz -- not to mention some darn good skating -- when she won the national title in 2008. But she hasn't been able to duplicate that magic -- until Thursday night.

"I'm just here to show myself and everyone that I'm the future of the USA," Nagasu said. "I'm not in my personal bubble all the time, and I do have access to the Internet. I can read what people write. I just want to be a dark horse and come up from behind."

Her "Pirates of the Caribbean" program was as big a hit as any of the Johnny Depp versions, the kind of get-your-blood-pumping fun U.S. audiences haven't seen since Michelle Kwan ruled the rink. Her jumps were so huge the judges had to look up to see her, yet they flowed like poetry.

Her spins were exquisite. The positions of her layback were spellbinding and she was so fast she was practically a blur. Yet she didn't budge an inch, staying in the same tight little circle.

"She's really skating well," coach Frank Carroll said -- high praise, considering he was threatening to kick her out of the rink in November when he didn't like her reaction to a poor performance at Cup of China.

Asked what changed, Carroll said, "Believing that she can perform and have personality and hit the elements. Before, she was worried only about hitting the elements."

Indeed, that's where the move to Carroll has benefited Nagasu most. She used every inch of her body, from the top of her head to the very tips of her fingers, and she said as much with her face as she did with her skates.

"All I can say is Frank's girl must have been pretty good to beat [Cohen's] performance," Nicks said. "And I told him that."

Flatt, runner-up the last two seasons, was one of only two women to do a triple-triple combination. She was a little swingy on the landing of the triple flip, the first jump in the combo.

"It's probably one of the worst landings I've had on a triple-triple all week," Flatt said. "My first two jumping passes were a little shaky, but I think I did a good job fighting for them."

But her spins are nowhere near as difficult as her jumps, and the first half of her program was totally lacking in luster to match her sparkly pink dress. It wasn't until the end of the program -- when all the hard stuff was out of the way -- that Flatt let loose. Her footwork was fun and peppy, so reminiscent of a 1930s jazz club you could almost see the clouds of smoke.

Earlier, Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the compulsory dance, striking the first blow in a juicy showdown with Olympic silver medalists and former training partners Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto that could have ramifications all the way to Vancouver. Granted, Davis and White's lead is just .4 points heading into Friday's original dance, but in a discipline where upsets seldom happen, this is big.

Davis and White scored an American-record 45.42 for their Golden waltz.

"Last year was really a turning point for us," Davis said. "We really knew we were going to be able to put ourselves at the top someday and compete with anybody."

No doubt about that.

Belbin and Agosto have been among the world's best ice dancers for the better part of a decade now, and their dominance in the United States was unchallenged. But as they adjusted to a coaching change last season and some untimely injuries, Davis and White were quietly rising in international stature.

Davis and White won the U.S. title last year -- Belbin and Agosto were out with Agosto's back injury -- and missed the bronze medal at the world championships by a mere .04 points, a razor-thin margin more suited for swimming than ice dancing. Last month, they became the first American couple to win the prestigious Grand Prix final title. But Belbin and Agosto weren't in Tokyo, either, sidelined by Belbin's infected wisdom tooth.

That raised the stakes even higher for nationals. As reigning Olympic and world silver medalists, Belbin and Agosto will go to Vancouver as gold medal contenders. Beat them, and Davis and White will be in the mix, too, along with Russian world champions Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin and Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

"It's very important to finish first," White said. "We want to go into the Olympics as the top U.S. team. That means a lot. We want Olympic gold, so we want to go in as the top dogs."

So much so that Davis and White spent an entire month working on their compulsory dance. That Bollywood-style original dance that's been so popular with fans and judges alike? They didn't touch it for most of December. Same for that free dance. They did the Golden waltz so often they must have been hearing the music in their sleep.

But the work paid off. Their free legs were perfectly matched, and the depth of their edges could be seen in the lean of their bodies. And unlike most couples, who paste smiles on their faces when they're shellacking their hair, Davis and White looked as if they really enjoyed being out there.

"It felt really good," Davis said. "We worked tremendously hard on that dance -- harder than any compulsory in the past, so we felt really confident."

Belbin and Agosto, one of the first couples to skate, were quite impressive, too. With her in a long, seafoam green dress and him in tails, they looked ready to attend a gala in 19th-century Vienna. And with the way they skated, they would have been belles of the ball.

While other couples labored through twizzles and dips, Belbin and Agosto floated through them. They covered every inch of the ice and then some, getting so close to the boards the fans in the front row could see every last detail of Belbin's dress.

They had great speed, too, staying with every nuance of the music.

"It felt great," Agosto said. "We were really happy to feel like we skated like we always do at home."

"We felt like we attacked it," Belbin added.

And the fight isn't close to being over.

The four skaters remain good friends, despite Belbin and Agosto leaving Detroit in April 2008 to train with 1980 Olympic gold medalists Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov outside Philadelphia. They, better than anyone, know just how good the other duo can be.

"We really need to go all out in this competition if we want to go out on top," Belbin said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.