For once, a grizzled 'veteran' will likely skate to gold

Updated: February 22, 2006, 2:54 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

TORINO, Italy -- It's an unforgiving sport when you refer to yourself as the "team grandma" at age 21.

"Ice is maintenance," Sasha Cohen said of an ice pack on her inner right thigh Tuesday night. "When you get to be my age, with six or seven years competing at the senior level, you have to take care of your body. It's not brand new."

Sasha Cohen
Vladimir Rys/Getty Images Sasha Cohen skated a nearly flawless program to take the early lead Tuesday.

Cohen holds a slim lead in the women's figure skating event after Tuesday's short program, but what is more important is the likelihood that an honest-to-gosh adult finally will win the gold medal Thursday. Cohen is 21, Japan's Shizuka Arakawa is 24 and Russia's Irina Slutskaya just turned 27. They're separated by less than a point with the next set of skaters five points behind them. A younger skater, like fifth-place Kimmie Meissner, could still slip in, but it would be at the fault of the "old ladies."

This is in distinct contrast to the past three Olympics, which were all won by teenagers. Oksana Baiul won the gold in 1994 at age 16, Tara Lipinski won it at age 15 in 1998 and Sarah Hughes won it at age 16 in 2002. Lipinski not only still watched cartoons, but she also skated to the music of cartoons. Even Kristi Yamaguchi wasn't legally old enough to drink when she won the 1992 gold medal a couple months short of her 21st birthday.

And consider this: Slutskaya is almost as old as Baiul. If she wins, she would become the oldest Olympic gold medalist in women's figure skating history (Madge Syers won a gold in 1908 at age 27, but that was before the Winter Olympics were an official event).

Not that there aren't plenty of skaters here who probably really, really love Maroon 5. American Kimmie Meissner, in fifth place, is 16, while Emily Hughes, in seventh place, just turned 17 and said that she spent last week "worried about high school and getting ready for the SATs." And the best skater might not even be here, because at age 13 Mao Asada is too young by Olympic figure skating standards.

Plus, the 21-year-old Cohen is built like a 13-year-old, with the flexibility that comes with it. She skated beautifully, landing a triple Lutz-double toe and a triple flip, then adding an elegant spiral step sequence. It hurt your body just watching her hold her leg in some of those elements. And yet, she made it look easy.

"It was a good start," said John Nicks, Cohen's coach. "It was a very good start, but it was only a start."

Cohen should know that. She was third after the short program in Salt Lake but skated poorly in the long and finished a disappointing fourth.

"I'm a different person than I was in Salt Lake," she said. "I've learned so much and matured. I've learned how to handle the nerves better since then."

She also is now old enough to not only quote a book that wasn't part of the American Girls series, but to quote one by John Wooden.

"You can't live in the past and you can't live in the future, but what you do in the present can affect the future. So that's what I'm trying to do," she said.

Cohen sounds like she has her head together. She talked about respecting those who had the mental toughness to persevere and that "anyone on the street can say, 'I want to win an Olympic gold medal' or 'I want a billion dollars,' but it's what you have to do on a day-to-day basis to get there that makes the difference."

And just in case she needs any further perspective, she need only look to her coach.

Nicks is 76 years old and has been in figure skating since Dick Button's voice changed. He won a world pairs title with his sister in 1953, but he never won an Olympic medal. He has coached skaters to 37 national championships but has never coached a skater to an Olympic medal.

"You would bring that up," he joked with reporters. "But if she wins here, that could jump-start the second half of my coaching career."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com