In the world of elite figure skating, where athletes seem to change coaches as casually as they change edges, it's often harder to keep track of skaters' off-ice transitions than it is to follow what they're doing at the rink.
SashaCohen.comCohen and longtime coach John Nicks
But from 2002 to 2004, Sasha Cohen put together a series of coaching moves that was dizzying even by the standards of her sport. In a two-and-a-half year span, Cohen undertook three coaching changes, two cross-country relocations, and training stints under the former coaches of both reigning Olympic singles champions. She ended up back where she started -- and, she says, a better skater and tougher competitor.
Cohen developed into an elite skater under the tutelage of John Nicks, a dry-witted Englishman who in 1953 won a world title in pairs with his sister. Nicks' personality sometimes clashed with Cohen's -- he has called her "tempestuous" and "challenging," and joked that she's the authority figure in the relationship -- but he led her to two U.S. silver medals and an Olympic berth by the time she was 17.
Although Cohen had never even skated at a major senior championship event entering the Salt Lake Games, experts felt she had the potential to win gold in her Olympic debut if she skated perfectly. And the supremely talented Cohen was in fact in medal contention -- third place -- after a stellar short program. But in the Olympic free skate, a different American teenager, Sarah Hughes, had the skate of her life. Cohen performed reasonably well overall, but a fall on a triple-triple jump combination left her in fourth place, one spot shy of a medal.
"I honestly didn't think there would be a March after February," Cohen says of the 2001-02 season and the Salt Lake disappointment. "Having the Olympics be over was the sudden realization that I had to make some decisions, move on, train for Worlds, go on tour."
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesCohen had two stellar Grand Prix seasons while training under Tarasova.
The most significant of those decisions was the one she made in the summer of 2002, when she left Nicks, her longtime instructor, and moved to the East Coast to train under legendary Russian coach Tatyana Tarasova. Cohen's official reason for the switch was the better training conditions (more ice time) she'd have in Connecticut, but the competitive record of Tarasova's former charges -- most notably Russia's Alexei Yagudin, who won the men's Olympic title in Salt Lake -- was appealing as well.
Under Tarasova, Cohen produced the best international results of her career, winning six of her eight Grand Prix events in 2002 and 2003, including the 2002-03 Grand Prix Final. But on Christmas Eve 2003, she announced she was leaving Tarasova to work with Robin Wagner, who had guided Hughes to her stunning Salt Lake success.
Cohen cited Tarasova's poor health as the reason for the change, though Tarasova continued to coach. In fact, soon after Tarasova was made available, Japanese skater Shizuka Arakawa enlisted her services. That development proved significant when, in March 2004, Arakawa defeated Cohen for gold at the World Championships.
Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty ImagesRobin Wagner coached Cohen in 2004.
Cohen progressed under Wagner, winning the short program at the 2004 Worlds -- an accomplishment she cites as her career highlight -- before slipping to silver with a few small errors in the free skate. But she was under-trained in the fall of 2004 (a time she describes as "a mess") and injuries kept her off the Grand Prix circuit.
The logistics of training with Robin were difficult: For part of 2004, Cohen continued to live in Connecticut, and commuted to Hackensack, New Jersey, to practice at a rink there. Eventually, Cohen moved in with Wagner and her husband on Long Island to make the commute easier. Then in the fall, she and her family rented an apartment in New York City. But in late December 2004 -- almost exactly one year after she started training with Wagner -- Cohen announced another abrupt change: She was moving back to California to resume training with the man she calls "Mr. Nicks," now 76.
"After the last several years of training on the East Coast, I have come to the realization that California is my home and it is time for me to return," Cohen wrote on her Web site. She bought a house in Newport Beach for herself, her mother, and her younger sister. Mr. Nicks, who had spent much of his time off from coaching deep-sea fishing, said he was happy that his prize pupil returned.
"When I came back to [Nicks], he said that I was a skater that was older and more mature -- that should have more responsibility and more input in my skating," Cohen says. The immediate results validate her decision; she placed second at the 2005 U.S. Nationals (behind Michelle Kwan, who won a record-tying ninth title) and won a second consecutive silver medal at the World Championships.
Cohen doesn�t regret her East Coast experiences, which she says contributed to her growth as a competitor. "I've learned a lot over the last four years, from Tatyana, from Robin -- how to train programs and jumps. And I've learned about myself -- how to combine all those things. It's taken me a while to learn about how to compete and how to train, and this is, I think, one of the first years where I'm on track."
Her route back to Nicks was a circuitous one, but Cohen's hoping it will lead to Olympic gold in February.