For US ice queens, a chilly warm-up

Practicing Cohen brushes a bit close to the favorite, Michelle Kwan

The queens of American Olympic figure skating don't come at each other with broadaxes and hand grenades in their new, civilized millennium. There are no Calamity Janes on the American team. The rivalries today are laced with a kind of brittle finesse.

What's especially brittle today may be Michelle Kwan's psyche. If Sasha Cohen skates much closer in their next warm-up, they may need surgical gloves to peel them apart.

It happened again over the weekend. Sasha, the headstrong and impetuous young pixie of the American women's team, buzzed close to the national champion in a warm-up for the singles showdowns. It happened only hours after Sasha offered an explanation for her previous near-miss. That occurred a few weeks ago before the nationals. No blood was shed, but critics claimed she was trying to rattle Kwan and raise the psychological bar in the already the high stakes of women's world skating. If Kwan was flabbergasted by it all, she created no scene.

Cohen denied any intent to interfere, but Sasha's alleged gamesmanship came up again when she, Kwan, and fellow teammate Sarah Hughes gathered for a public display of amity this weekend.

A reporter wanted to know about her aggressive (someone was tempted to say "intimidating") warm-up style. Sasha is a resourceful young woman with a practical mind. "When I go out to warm up," she said, "I know that I have six minutes and I have quite a few elements to warm up, so I'm just focusing on how I'm going to get it all done."

Her coach, John Nicks, nodded and offered the thought that Sasha had it right. He had the air of a man tired beyond his years. Coaching high-strung skating prima donnas does tend to add to the suspense of life.

When calm returns, however - if it does - one of those three may stand atop the Olympic podium. Seeing them together, Kwan, Hughes, and Cohen, all of them confident, gifted, and driven, you get the impression that Mr. Nicks may be right in the vision he shared with the cameras. He said he had a picture of the final night, "a picture in my mind of the three American ladies and the three Russian ladies in the final [warm-up] group ... in what will be a classic confrontation. I predict we should win at least two medals."

Games' signature event

If it comes to that, the American stars against a Russian triumvirate headed by Irina Slutskaya and Maria Butryskaya, it will be not only the climactic night of the 2002 Olympics but may also shake up Olympic history. It's the night, the women's figure skating, that mesmerizes the global television audience. Millions in that audience may never have watched an American football game on TV or a European soccer game. But when a Michelle Kwan or Irina Slutskaya stands poised in the center of the arena to begin her final dance to glory, the world holds its breath.

It will, because this event is the Hope Diamond of the Olympics, the lodestone of the whole show. Once in a while there is a hockey "miracle on ice" or a Jean-Claude Killy in Alpine skiing. But usually it is the ice queens who turn the Olympics into a Mardi Gras for a night.

Three hopefuls, only one gold

Kwan is the 21-year-old international star who has yet to win an Olympic gold. She dumped her longtime coach in pursuit of the grail of her personal and professional life, the freedom to make the big decisions.

Hughes is shrewd, energetic, and a powerful jumper who found herself on the cover of a major newsmagazine a week ago and clearly enjoyed it. She has altered the music of the final portion of her program and is delighted with the change. "It's exciting and it's a different pace from the prior ending, and I think it will have a positive impact on my program."

As for Sasha Cohen, she apparently will abandon the idea of attempting the super-demanding quad salchow in the biggest competition of her life. She and the coach, she said, had decided that "we really want to do a safe program, programs that I am more comfortable with."

All of which seems to put it on the skates of Michelle Kwan, who sometimes allows herself some honest and unguarded reflections on an Olympic gold in the larger scheme of her life.

Somebody wanted to know if failure to win gold would leave her career incomplete and, by inference, Kwan herself incomplete.

"I can't justify training for four years just for that six minutes on the ice. There's got to be more things I enjoy out of skating, and for me it's definitely the process of getting there," she said. "It's every day you skate, regardless of falling and making mistakes, being frustrated, feeling like crazy at times. There are moments that make skating so special, even last month at the nationals, skating as well as I did. Those are the moments you always die for."

They certainly may not define your life. But for a moment, and maybe for a little longer than that, they stop the world.

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