Sasha Cohen answers critics of her Grand Prix meet pullout
I took 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen at her word when Cohen announced last Friday she was withdrawing from this week's Grand Prix competition in Paris because of tendinitis in her leg.
I posted that news here and in the Los Angeles Times' Olympic Blog, "Ticket to Vancouver,'' with her statement. I made no comment other than putting a question mark -- in the Globetrotting version of the Blog -- over a picture of Cohen. The punctuation referred to the status of her comeback.
Some comments on this Blog took me to task for not having questioned why Cohen was pulling out of an upcoming competition only three days after she had done a show in Anaheim, Calif., for which she was paid.
Some who commented also noted correctly that I had been hard on Johnny Weir for complaining about illness at last year's U.S. Championships after he had flown to South Korea for a show. At least one comment suggested that Cohen's comeback after three years away from competition was nothing more than a publicity grab on her part.
Former U.S. world team member Jennifer Kirk joined that chorus, writing in her Blog, "Something about her statement doesn't add up.'' Although Kirk stopped short of doubting that Cohen is injured, she insisted it would be no surprise if Cohen did not compete at all this season: "However, it seems to me that maybe Cohen didn't realize in May just how tough this comeback was going to seem in October,'' Kirk wrote. "My guess? Sometimes the fear of failure can be more painful than any injury.''
(Failure is something Kirk is familiar with, having slid to 17th- and 18th-place finishes in her two world meet appearances and quitting a year before the 2006 Olympics; Cohen, by comparison, has an Olympic silver, two world silvers, a world bronze and no finish worse than fourth in five world and two Olympic appearances.)
But the question about the show and the timing of the withdrawal is legitimate. Unlike Kirk and those who sent comments, I had the advantage (and responsibility) of raising it the way a real journalist does -- by letting Cohen give her side of the story before commenting on it.
(In this case, there really is no other side of the story. Only Cohen knows what her body and mind are telling her.)
Cohen and I spoke by telephone Tuesday afternoon.
Here is what she said:
Q. Sasha, there has been a lot of critical comment on the Internet about your doing the Improv-Ice show three days before you withdrew from the Bompard Trophy event because of a lingering injury. Can you go through the chronology and explain why you skated in the show?
A. I had an injury on the outside of my right calf that happened at the end of September. It prevented me from doing flips and lutzes (two of her triple jumps) and also affected my landings on loops. I took it easy on jumping for a while and didn't have the opportunity to train my programs even though I was still skating. I did do one show but only with two jumps: triple salchow and double axel. I tried my lutz and didn't land it there so basically I felt then I wasn't able to do a competitive program with lutzes and flips and be ready to compete in Paris. I am starting to do long program run-throughs this week but the injury set me back so I wouldn't have been ready for Paris.
Q. The critics are asking, "How can she be skating a show if she is supposed to be taking time off to heal?"
A. I never took time off. I just had to stop doing flips and lutzes for a while and minimize my other jumping so I couldn't really train my short and long programs. That show was (a day after) I started doing flips and lutzes again, and that was just one week before Paris.
Q. Some people have suggested the problem wasn't your injury but your not wanting to compete in Paris against Kim Yuna (the reigning world champion) and Mao Asada (the 2008 world champion).
A. I really, really wanted to go to Paris. I miss competing. I'm really loving training right now. I will be competing against Yuna at Skate America (in mid-November) anyway.
Q. How do you react to the critics bashing you on the Internet?
A. Fortunately, I don't go online and read any of that. There are so many shows I have turned down -- in Italy, in Japan. I just did this show because it was my home town, and I had to miss only a half day of training. I did one show in Chicago (last month), and I turned down about 10 offers I have had (for other shows) so I could have the time to train . . .
It's hard to turn them down because that's also my income. I don't get support from U.S. Figure Skating because I didn't compete last year and now I'm paying for coaching and costumes and everything.
Q. How many jumps total did you do in the Improv-Ice show?
A. A double axel, two triple salchows, and I fell on a triple lutz.
Q. Do you have any doubt in your mind you will be ready for Skate America?
A. I have a month until Skate America. I am able to resume my training full-on right now. I think it should be good. My triple-triple (flip-toe) is really close. I am skating so much faster that I am early (ahead of the music) everywhere in my program. I feel much better, much more powerful. I'm excited to compete. I wish I had a little more time (before Paris), but I don't. I will probably do an exhibition skate for practice before I go to Skate America.
Q. What have you been doing for the injury?
A. Now it's Celebrex, Aleve and massage. I did ultrasound and ice, and then I wrapped it. A lot of it was just leaving it alone because I strained it from over tapping (on jump takeoffs). Because it was already strained, even using it on loops or the landings of other jumps where I use that leg to grip. So I just had to lay off the repetitions of everything, and that is what set me back.
The important thing for me is January (the U.S. Championships). I have to be great there, make the team. These events in the fall are times to practice, check out my levels (the difficulty levels that judges assign). I had four or five months to get back into the (competitive) shape I was in before. I'm getting there, just not quite as fast as I would like, but things are going well.
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After listening to Cohen, I have two comments:
1. Doing the show gave Cohen definitive proof she could not be ready for the Paris competition, but it also made her an easy target for critics.
2. If her comeback falls short -- and even if she abandons it before doing a single competition -- figure skating will have gained attention at a time when it is dropping out of sight on the U.S. sports landscape. It is not Cohen's fault that people are more excited about watching her than the other current leading women in the United States, none of whom appears to have the remotest chance of challenging for the 2010 Olympic title. (Not since 1964, three years after the plane crash that killed the best U.S. skaters, have U.S. women been given no chance at the Olympic title.)
Sure, Cohen is unlikely to make the U.S. Olympic team and even less likely to be a medal contender in Vancouver. Yes, I know the circumstances are different, because the skaters I am about to cite were not out of competition for three years; yes, I know this logic could also apply to Rachael Flatt or Caroline Zhang or Mirai Nagasu in 2010; but ask yourself how much chance would anyone have given China's Lu Chen to win the 1998 Olympic bronze after she failed to qualify for the free skate at the 1997 worlds or Paul Wylie to win the 1992 Olympic silver after he was last of 20 qualifiers for the free skate at the 1991 worlds?
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Sasha Cohen competes at the 2006 Olympic Games. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times