CLEVELAND — So tiny she could dance in the palm of your hand, dressed in pristine white, Sasha Cohen pointed her toes to the sky, spun so fast the blood seemed to have rushed right out of her head, arched her back until she nearly split in half, then leaped and landed two triple jumps and a double axel.
There was not a mistake, not a wobble and, at the end, there was a standing ovation so loud and so exuberant that the next competitor, Sarah Hughes, had to tell herself, "Just ignore all that noise."
Cohen, a 4-foot-9, 79-pound 10th grader from Laguna Niguel, finds herself ahead of her hero, Michelle Kwan, ahead of her training partner at the Ice Chalet in Costa Mesa, Naomi Nari Nam, ahead of everybody at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
After Friday's short program, which counts for a third of the final score, Cohen is ahead of Hughes, a 14-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., who finished fourth at last year's nationals and seventh at the 1999 World Championships, and the three-time nationals winner, the legendary 19-year-old UCLA freshman, Kwan. Nam, the 14-year-old from Irvine who was a startling second at last year's national championships, stands in fifth place after the short program.
And just as Nam did last year, Cohen, 15, captured the hearts of the figure skating crowd Friday afternoon.
Her program, skated to classical music from Vivaldi and Albanini, is lyrical and breathtakingly mature for one so young. Cohen, the daughter of a Southern California lawyer, Roger, and a mother, Galina, who came to the U.S. from Odessa in the Ukraine nearly 30 years ago, touches a skate to the back of her head, lifts one leg straight above her head and keeps moving, holds a leg with both hands over her head and spins.
She appears so fragile that her coach, 70-year-old John Nicks, says Cohen is called the "China Doll" at the Ice Chalet. And Cohen is so incredibly out of it on Monday mornings, Nicks says, "that she takes unbelievable falls, hard, hard falls. And yet I've never seen her cry."
Cohen was once a gymnast, from when was 5 until she was 7. Her grandfather, her mother's father, was once a gymnast, Cohen says. "He performed in a parade, in front of Stalin," she says.
Never did Cohen have to do gymnastics in front of "a very bad man," as she describes Stalin, but she did start to feel pain from the sport. Her mother, only 5-feet tall herself, says she too feared the terrible injuries that gymnasts seem to suffer, and so, when the 7-year-old Sasha asked to go ice skating, Galina was happy to oblige.
"From the minute she hit the ice," Galina says, "you could just tell she loved it. She fell and she fell, but she just kept getting up and going on."
A year ago Cohen won the silver medal at the junior level of the national championships and was almost completely ignored while Nam skated an athletic, vibrant long program to move from fourth to second place and stamp herself as a possible challenger to Kwan.
This last year has been testing for Nam. She has been swamped with opportunities to skate in exhibitions, she has become a media superstar in South Korea, where both her parents were born, and she has endured criticism that she is trying to do too much too soon.
Nam didn't fall Friday, but she did stumble between the jumps of her triple lutz, double toe combination and she turned a planned triple flip into a double flip. Still, Nam's spins were the best of the day and she still has a chance to repeat as a medalist if she skates a flawless, carefree long program tonight.
While Nam is a feisty, athletic skater who refuses to quit smiling, Cohen, Nicks says, can confound him.
"Sasha is a unique skater," Nicks says, "who can sometimes be difficult to coach because she has a mind of her own. I earn my money when I'm coaching Sasha."
Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, has called Cohen his favorite among the young group of Nam, Hughes, 15-year-old Jennifer Kirk, 16-year-old Deanna Stellato, 15-year-old Sara Wheat and 17-year-old Stacey Pensgen.
Nicks describes Cohen as "unable to ever get in an ugly position." Always her toes are pointed, her arms are stretched and elegant, her heart is with the music. She is an artist, Nicks says, and Sasha is a painter and a potter as well as a straight-A student at Futures High School in Mission Viejo. The school is aimed toward students who have unconventional outside interests. Sasha goes in once a week to talk to teachers and get her 25 hours of homework.
All week here, Cohen has been nailing all her jumps in practice. She has finished practices, then badgered her mother. "Everybody has manicures," she said one day. "Can I get a manicure?"
Now, for 24 hours, Cohen will know how Nam has felt for a year. The spotlight is on. Will she be able to hold onto that top spot, or at least to a medal?