Reporting from Spokane, Wash. — Sasha Cohen took the ice a few minutes after the other five skaters in her practice group Friday afternoon, and why not? Doesn't the star always come on last?
From the moment she finished second in her senior national debut at age 15 a decade ago, with a persona already so outsized it was hard to imagine that a 5-foot-2 frame could accommodate it, Cohen has been the closest thing to a pure diva in figure skating.
Yet never before has everyone else in a competition seemed like just a warmup act for Alexandra Pauline Cohen, known by the Russian diminutive of her first name, so well known that the nickname alone identifies her.
From 1996 through 2006, Michelle Kwan's commanding presence diminished that of everyone else in the sport. Even in 2006, when Cohen won her only national title, the story was whether the absent Kwan would be given an Olympic spot.
These U.S. championships are all about Sasha, especially after a strong performance in Thursday's short program left her less than half a point behind leader Mirai Nagasu and in clear contention for one of the two spots on the 2010 Olympic team.
"Sasha has taken ownership of this event. She has such a presence out there," said two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser, coach of skating's biggest current international star, Kim Yuna of South Korea.
That seems remarkable for a 25-year-old coming back after a four-year competitive absence, a comeback rendered uncertain by injuries last fall.
"It's fun to have the attention and appreciation of people," Cohen said. "It's been like this since I was 15, so you kind of get used to it."
The doubt over whether Cohen could skate as well as she did in the short program only added to the attention. It also revived discussion of another doubt about Cohen that has existed since she was 15: an inability to skate two error-free programs in the same event.
In those 2000 nationals, a fall on her easiest triple jump with 25 seconds left in the long program probably cost her the title. There would be four other such failures, including the 2006 Olympics, when Cohen won the silver medal.
Although U.S. Figure Skating's Olympic selection criteria factor more than results at this event, it seems likely Cohen will have to finish in the top two to make a third Olympic team.
That almost certainly means she must skate well tonight, when Cohen plans six triple jumps in her four-minute free skate, to hold off Rachael Flatt, who is only .28 behind.