Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sasha Cohen Brings Star Power Back to Skating


Sasha confirms she’ll be at Nationals. Sasha’s in town. Sasha has a new website. Sasha has posted a journal. Sasha will practice in four hours. In three. In two. Sasha is on the ice. Wow, the speed. Sasha is running through her program. She looks like the old Sasha. She only missed the flip in practice. Sasha is back. Watch video of her practice at …

And so it goes, twitter after twitter rolling in for the past couple of days faster than the returns in the Massachusetts Senate race. Cameras follow the diminutive 25-year-old every step. Hundreds of articles about her have sprung recently — dozens about her first practice alone! If the Queen of England were to waltz into Spokane she couldn’t attract more attention than has been lavished on Sasha Cohen, whose last competition was back in 2006 — an eternity in figure skating. 

In the years since, we’ve had three different ladies’ champions. I dare any of the readers here to stop one hundred people on the street in Middle America and ask them to name any of them. Odds are not one could. Some may actually name Sasha Cohen or Michelle Kwan instead. (For the record, they were Alissa Czisny in 2009, Mirai Nagasu in 2008, and Kimmie Meissner in 2007.)

So why do we need Sasha Cohen to get us excited about figure skating once again? She’s not Olympic champion, yet her aura shimmers more intensely now than ever. Many would blame the lack of interest in women’s skating on the poor international performance of the current crop of young American ladies. A fluke, they’ll say. Bad luck. You can’t always have world champions, right? 

Funny thing, though: the United States has had no such streak of bad luck since the 1960s, when a tragic plane crash wiped out the entire U.S. skating team.  Since then we’ve had ice princess galore, from Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Elaine Zayak and Rosalynn Sumners in the early 1980s, Debi Tomas, Caryn Kadavy and Jill Trenary in the late 1980s, and then Kristi Yamaguchi, Nicole Bobek, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Sasha Cohen in the 90s and beyond. (And this does not even count the Nancy & Tonya soap opera of 1994.) 

What could have happened since to bring America’s ice-queen-making machine to a screeching halt? Could it be mere coincidence that this sea change happened after the International Skating Union replaced the 6.0 scoring system with a new one, which measures the value of a skating performance in points awarded like coins dropping out of a slot machine? 

The fascination with Sasha Cohen’s comeback attempt can be explained to some extent by her  uncommon grace and artistry, but it can’t account for the full circus around her presence in Spokane. After all, national champion Alissa Czisny is also known for her elegant skating and photogenic looks. Yet she and her competitors lack something that Sasha Cohen exudes like few others: star power. 

There is no simple recipe for this kind of magic, but ingredients include force of personality, competitive success, and most importantly sometimes, longevity in the sport. None of the skaters today can match any of the above, least of all the staying power. Not one of these ladies has had even one uninterrupted successful season. People remember stars and the larger-than-life rivalries between them. They recognize their faces on TV, root for or against them, and are inexplicably drawn to them. 

Stars like Cohen just don’t come along anymore, and it’s not the fault of the extremely talented ladies competing at Nationals this week. None other than ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta said in a recent interview that under the current system, the sport has become “too difficult” to still produce stars. Indeed it has. Long programs are packed so tightly with multiple-revolution jumps and combinations, contorted spins, and other difficult elements that most skaters have no time to catch their breath, interpret music, or connect with the crowd. A select few — such as Jeremy Abbott last weekend or Johnny Weir at other times — manage to create magic in spite of the system. But even they have trouble delivering a high level of performance for any length of time. With a few exceptions, the new scoring system has turned the sport into gymnastics on ice, and its popularity has been in free fall since. 

As for Cohen’s comeback, the jury’s out until next weekend. For now she remains a wildcard. But regardless of what happens when the music starts and the judges touch their magic screens, Sasha Cohen has been a boon for ticket sales in Spokane and for TV’s ability to sell skating to national audiences once again. The ISU is no doubt praying very hard that Cohen will be on her way to Vancouver soon to do the same for the sport at the Olympics. 

But praying won’t result in stars for the sport. Rethinking the system that fails to produce them would be a far better alternative. 


  1. Great observations, thank you. Sasha Cohen really looks like she's from another time. I can't believe it's only been four years. There's no comparison. Everything's changed!

  2. I think the only way Sasha Cohen could really help figure skating is to drive Marty McFly's DeLorean time machine and take us back to 1988. Oh..and just before she gets in the DeLorean, she needs to go on the ice, do the most gigantic double axle of her life, fly into the stands and sadly and unfortunately, have her right skate blade land squarely in Cinquanta's jugular vein. Yes. Then skating is saved.

  3. I think if she stuck around competitively for a while it would raise the level of the younger group. They have nobody to look up to competitively in the states.

  4. Just for kicks, I asked the 1st random person who passed my desk who Sasha Cohen is, and was told,"Oh, the comedian!" I said,"No, the figure skater." and got a blank look as she continued on...So, most may not know who was Nat Champ last year, but few outside FS know Sasha.

  5. In the finals tonight the top four ladies had a Component total point spread of around 3 points from 1st to 4th. The same top four ladies had an Elements total point spread of around 23 points from 1st to 4th. This indicates to me that the only real difference between these four skaters is their technical ability and that on an artistic level, all four were virtually equal. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have hated this sport for the last 5 years or so, and tonight re-emphasizes why I abandonded it years ago.

  6. I was disappointed in Sasha-she still has bad jump technique. Everytime she lifts the back leg before a jump, her timing is off andthe jump is a disaster. I give her a ton of credit for trying to get back in shape to compete and I also think she gave the sport a huge boost by challenging the women to stretch more and be more artistic. I would love to see her clean up her jumps because in the artistic department she is lovely...

  7. Sasha is a talented skater and gorgeous young woman, so its disappointing she didnt make the team.

  8. if sasha was at the olympics we would have won a medal I hope she still competes
    she wonderful to watch

  9. I agree, Sasha is a talented young skater. I saw her once on TV and she showed amazing skating techniques.

    Scott Sullivan

    P.S. May I leave a shameless plug? Houston Safes