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Orange County's Olympic Skater, 17, Everything but Icy

Sports: Sasha Cohen is suddenly famous, but she seems to have both blades on the ground.

January 22, 2002|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Sasha Cohen was just another teenage girl taking her twirls on Orange County ice rinks, her fan base grounded in the small circle of local skating buffs.

But suddenly, Sasha seems to be everywhere. She's carrying an Olympic torch through San Diego. She's waving to an adoring crowd at Staples Center. She's writing an online diary, just two clicks from a Web site where fans can download Sasha screen savers.

It's a month before the Olympics, and Sasha Cohen--the diminutive Laguna Niguel figure skater who is considered a top contender for a gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics--is spinning in her rise to fame.

"It's exciting," Sasha said during a recent practice. "But it's not really reality. I'll just enjoy it while it's there."

With fame come demands. The moment the 17-year-old is spotted signing a fan's boot or notebook at the Aliso Viejo rink where she trains, other aspiring skaters swarm around her, hoping for a signature and her trademark seal: a heart.

The avalanche of attention has been fun. She says she tries to be a role model for younger skaters--working hard and enjoying the limelight but keeping things in perspective.

"It's a lot of fun to be a role model," Sasha said. "It's also inspiring to me."

Even the youngest of her fans have faith that Sasha will bring home the gold.

"She's going to the Olympics, and she's going to get the gold because she's good," said Amanda Gelb, who, at 4, has been skating half her life. "I like the way she spins and twirls."

Parents at the rink are buzzing too, chatting about Sasha's "sweet" demeanor, "doll-like" appearance and strength on the ice.

The buzz moved beyond Sasha's neighborhood when she dazzled crowds at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this month, clinching second place after a yearlong absence with a back injury.

One Toronto sports reporter said Sasha, at 5-foot-1 and 94 pounds, "looked like a swan" and described her performance as "displaying the magic that once belonged to [Michelle] Kwan." Other descriptions: "boundless nerve," "daring and confident," "unmatched for speed and spins" yet "nearly small enough to fit in one's hand."

Since the U.S. championships, Sasha's coach, John Nicks, has been so bombarded with requests for interviews and photo sessions with the petite but powerful skater that he decided to arrange a special practice performance. And it wasn't just sports reporters who attended.

Camera crews from NBC Sports and the Women's Entertainment Channel program "Winning Women" taped Sasha as she danced on the ice, as graceful and quick as a hummingbird, while a writer from Vogue magazine--the bible of the fashion industry--checked out the unitard Sasha designed herself.

Sasha's mom, Galina Cohen, said her daughter seems largely unaffected by the publicity.

"I don't think she's really aware of how far-reaching [her popularity] is," Cohen said. "But she's always tried to be a good role model. She's a very hard worker--she doesn't sit around chatting. She makes the most out of every day."

Sasha's openness to her fans has left an enduring impression.

"She's a really sweet, sweet girl," said Annette Pumphrey, whose 7-year-old daughter, Kendal, takes lessons at the same rink where Sasha trains.

Lindsey Mah, 7, who also trains at the rink, can't stop talking about Sasha. And since the U.S. championships, Lindsey has begged her mom to take her to the rink at least once a day.

"She has beautiful style," Lindsey said. "She's so graceful in her skating."

Sasha's fan base includes classmates at Aliso Niguel High School, where she is a senior. The school is planning a pep rally to send Sasha off to Salt Lake City. And then there are the formal fan clubs, Web pages and online chat rooms devoted to all things Sasha.

On a message board at www.figureskatersonline.com, fans chat about Sasha's desire to be the first woman to land a quadruple salchow jump in competition.

Fans can't agree on exactly what defines Sasha's appeal. Some cite her agility--she can spin with blurring speed and twirl on one leg while extending the other unnaturally above her head.

Others say it is the emotion of the performance. Her routines are personal, as she chooses the music and, with Nicks, helps choreograph her routines--a rarity among young skaters.

Nicks, who has coached skaters to nine Olympics, can't pinpoint his young skater's appeal, resorting to rattling off a list of strengths.

"She designs most of her costumes, and she has a great degree of input on much of what she does," he said. "She does have a stubborn streak--she questions a lot of decisions I make, and I don't have a problem with that, except when I don't have a logical answer. And she's certainly a wonderful figure skater."

Then he sums her up: "There's just something very special about Sasha."

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