Smooth transition for ex-Olympian

The Baltimore Sun

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- After years of standing alone in the spotlight, Sasha Cohen is learning how to lead an ensemble.

Smucker's Stars on Ice, the touring company led by legendary figure skater Scott Hamilton, has built this season around Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist and former U.S. champion.

It is her picture on the posters and her name on the marquee in this two-time Olympic host town and 50 cities across the country and Canada. The show, Live and In Color, will stop at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena on April 3.

Cohen, 23, who has not skated competitively since the 2006 world championships, says she won't decide until the tour ends this spring whether to attempt a comeback to be ready for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"It's just one step at a time now," she says. "I'm not going to rush a decision."

Most of the aches and pains that nagged her leading up to the Olympics are gone - although an occasional back twinge still slows her - and she chats easily about her post-Turin life: spending time with family and friends and living in a dorm while taking acting classes at Harvard last summer.

She has had small roles in three movies and a handful of TV shows, and she also taped a voter registration campaign aimed at young adults.

"I really feel at home here," she says of her leading-lady status with Stars on Ice. "I feel great right now."

Cohen calls the cast "a wonderful family." Former world champions Yuka Sato and Todd Eldredge and the pairs team of Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao are tour mainstays, with Olympic champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and Ilia Kulik among the stars appearing off and on.

"There's a tremendous energy in the show, a real collaboration. We work hard, but we also have fun," Cohen says. "But I'm sure with all the travel and rehearsal, I'll look forward to the days off."

Cohen says the change of pace "renewed my spark and love for skating" but adds that she has yet to watch any skating competitions on TV.

Perhaps that's because it would be a painful reminder that she came within one minute of Olympic gold in Turin. Cohen led after the short program but fell on the opening jump of her free skate and put both hands on the ice on the second one, enabling Shizuka Arakawa of Japan to win.

Cohen acknowledges that the rest of her four-minute performance and the news conference and awards ceremony afterward "were all just [a] blur ... I think I was thinking about space, about getting away. I don't revisit it too much."

In a gracious and thoughtful interview after the medal ceremony, she told reporters she had done the best she could and that "ultimately, it's four minutes of one day in my life."

Soothing words, but then Cohen went out and added two dimensions to what she acknowledged had become a one-dimensional life. Whether she can give that up for another Olympic quest remains to be seen.

As someone who made the transition from competitive skating to performing, Hamilton says he can understand Cohen's reluctance to give up her eligibility. Hamilton, 49, stopped touring after the 2001-02 season and is content with producing Stars on Ice with Jef Billings and being a network skating analyst.

"She really needs to have this time as a No. 1 so she can grow as an artist," Hamilton says. "She could create her own future rather than rely on a bank of judges. But it's hard to absolutely say, 'I'm done with this.'"

And Hamilton thinks her style is more suited to being a touring headliner.

"I always thought of her as an artist rather than an athlete," Hamilton says.

Cohen doesn't disagree with the characterization. "I think of skating now as more of an art than a sport. The acting classes made it less technical and more artistic for me, and I think that shows now."

Training for competition and learning all the changes in scoring won't be easy, Cohen says.

"If my body holds up and I'm competitive, I'd love to be in Vancouver," she says. "If there's a will, there's a way."

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