As Meissner glows, Cohen's a no-show


TURIN, Italy-- --Her medal hopes ahead of her, the Skating Surprise pulled her luggage behind her.

She was completely inconspicuous walking down Via Ventimiglia, going from rink to apartment. Not a single person stopped her or even realized that she was worth stopping. Could've been any 16-year-old girl scouring the streets for some gelato.

Somewhere not far away, you can picture the Olympic Diva high up in her tower. She's too tired to skate today, too busy to talk right now. I said only orange M&Ms;! Geez!

The contrast in character had never been so clear as it was yesterday. Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen both skate, and they're both American and they both have hopes to stand atop a podium tonight. But that's where the similarities end.

The United States' two great chances for a figure skating medal were scheduled to share practice ice at the Palavela. Only the kid showed up. The diva did a late lunch and then got a massage.

"I think anything is possible," said an excited Meissner, the 16-year-old from Bel Air who enters tonight's free skate in fifth place. "And I think I have a good shot. I think everybody in the last group does. I'm trying to think about my skating and not about the results, but [a medal] would be nice."

And Cohen, is she excited?

We don't know, because we couldn't ask Cohen, whose path to a gold medal took a bizarre detour yesterday when the 21-year-old bailed on both of her practice sessions.

Need more differences? Let's go down the list.

Cohen skipped the opening ceremony. Meissner was there.

Meissner is trying two triple-triple combinations tonight. Cohen is trying none.

Both skaters were up until the wee hours after Tuesday night's short program competition. Cohen was too tired to lace her skates the next day, a decision that could prove costly tonight. At her scheduled practice, for 4 minutes, 14 seconds, Cohen's music boomed across the arena, even though the ice princess was tucked away in her castle somewhere.

Meissner practiced twice yesterday. She loves it. She would have practiced a dozen times before tonight's program, if she could have.

"I think it's important to be out there on the Olympic ice," she says, "to feel comfortable with it."

Meissner faced reporters' questions yesterday - the easy, the tough and the inane. We never did see Cohen, though her coach smartly made an appearance and tried his best to quell fears.

"We talked about it, and I said she should practice," John Nicks said. "But when I heard about the rest of the issues, the fact that she hasn't slept very well, I thought it would be best she didn't do it, and she agreed."

Meissner never looked anything but jovial and has quickly endeared herself with a national media that questioned her skills and depth just a few days ago. While Cohen looks hot on the ice, off it, she can be colder than any rink I've ever been in.

A reporter asked her coach whether Cohen seemed moody at lunch yesterday. Nicks, the 76-year-old who's already been fired once by Cohen, responded, "Sasha, moody?"

It was the same way you'd say, "World peace, good?" Duh.

Cohen has a history of building a big lead in the short program and faltering in the long. Meissner's best almost always comes on Day Two, when her jumps can compensate for artistic deficiencies.

Cohen's and Meissner's names aren't often uttered in the same breath. Cohen, 5 years older, has always been regarded as a skater who requires a bit more maintenance. It's only recently that she has fully emerged from Michelle Kwan's shadow.

Meissner was raised in a public school system, teased by three hockey-playing older brothers and is so unassuming, she'd have to take three big steps to escape a tree's shadow.

Yesterday, while Cohen was lying low somewhere, Meissner was mingling among the masses. She lugged one suitcase down the street, and her coach, Pam Gregory, pulled two others. They moved past the locals, chatting away about earrings and text messages from back home and their plans for the rest of the day. The Olympics swirled all around her, but Meissner didn't seem to notice.

If you think it's normal for a figure skating star to stroll around outside the arena, then you might also think it's normal for a skater to blow off a pair of practices one day before a championship. It's like failing to study the night before a big test. If her performance is anything less than immaculate, Cohen had better be prepared for an avalanche of second-guessers.

There's a final difference between Meissner and Cohen. The young Maryland skater has already overachieved, having put herself into good position to challenge for a medal.

Tonight Cohen will stare her expectations square in the face - assuming she shows - having put herself into an unenviable position to lose a medal.

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