Meissner 6th and satisfied


TURIN, Italy -- When others fell, Shizuka Arakawa did not, allowing the Japanese skater to win her country's first medal at these Olympics and avert a Russian sweep of the figure skating events.

Arakawa performed her long program last night with speed, grace and power, finishing with the highest scores for both technical prowess and artistry. Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, skating in her first Olympics, finished sixth.

For Arakawa, a woman on the brink of retirement a year ago, it was a satisfying ending.

"I'm just surprised right now," said Arakawa, the 2004 world champion. "I can't find the words for it."

Also surprised was U.S. champion Sasha Cohen, who had assumed she was out of the medals hunt after a program that began with two major errors. She finished second, almost eight points behind Arakawa, and reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya took third, 10 points back.

"I think it was a gift," said Cohen, who had changed out of her burgundy skating dress and had to scurry to get back into costume for the medals ceremony. "I definitely gave 100 percent of my effort ... but it just wasn't my night."

Hoping for a sixth-place finish, Meissner had exactly that.

The youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team said she "was a little more tense" skating next-to-last than she had been in Tuesday's short program, where she performed early and finished fifth.

"For my first pretty big international competition and the Olympics, I think I did pretty well," said Meissner, 16. "Medals aren't everything. It's all about you going out there and having a good time. I feel proud of myself."

Arakawa, 24, was in third place before the long program, just 0.71 of a point behind the leader, Cohen. She left no doubt about her superiority, gliding across the ice in long, elegant lines and hitting six triple jumps. Her spins brought members of the International Skating Union to their feet. Her final score was 191.34 points.

But she showed little emotion as she took her bows. It was only when the scores flashed on the overhead board and the crowd roared that she smiled and pumped her fist in the air.

Cohen has been dealing with a series of what she calls "nagging" injuries, the most serious being a groin pull. She said she has been getting physical therapy and ultrasound treatments, and taking "a nice combination" of pain medications. She skipped practice Wednesday after complaining of fatigue.

The two-time world championship silver medalist had a rocky warm-up session before the competition, falling on two jumps. She skated to center ice with a look of apprehension on her face.

Almost immediately, Cohen was in trouble. She fell on a triple lutz, the front end of a planned three-jump combination, and then placed both hands on the ice to steady herself after a botched triple flip.

Thirty seconds into her program, Cohen hit a crossroads. Her next jump, a triple loop, was another troublemaker during warm-ups. But instead of falling apart, Cohen said, she gathered herself, and "the music carried me through."

From then on, she was fine. Still, she left the ice believing she would be going home empty-handed.

But none of the other skaters showed that they were better.

Slutskaya entered the evening in second place, just 0.03 behind Cohen. The two-time world champion, a gold-medal favorite, performed her four-minute program with all the fizz of day-old champagne. She fell once and exhibited sloppy footwork.

Although Slutskaya said she was happy with a bronze medal to go with her 2002 silver medal, her body language suggested otherwise.

She threw up her hands as she left the kiss-and-cry area. During the medals ceremony, she stared straight ahead and did not acknowledge the crowd.

"You never know what can happen. I'm happy I have something," she said afterward. "Of course I'm disappointed."

Until the 2002 Winter Games, when Sarah Hughes beat Michelle Kwan, the world champion had won every Olympic gold medal since 1984.

After winning the world title in 2004 - knocking off Kwan - Arakawa fell on hard times. She finished ninth at last year's competition and was only the third-best skater in her country's championships this year.

But by persevering, Arakawa has become the first Japanese woman to win a gold medal in figure skating. Midori Ito, one of Arakawa's idols, won silver in 1992.

For Cohen, it's another bridesmaid finish.

Before the opening ceremony, it appeared as though Cohen was finally becoming the face of U.S. figure skating. She had just won the U.S. championship and Kwan had withdrawn from Olympic competition because of injury. Her dazzling, spirited performance Tuesday night further reinforced that new image.

But, at 21, her body is showing signs of serious wear and tear. She has been hobbled by back injuries and now, a groin problem.

A younger Cohen might have pouted last night or given churlish answers. But, instead, she showed maturity and acceptance.

"I don't usually cry unless I'm angry," she said of the long program. "Ultimately, it's four minutes of one day of my life. I look back, and I've had such an incredible journey."

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