What began as a feel-good comeback story featuring 25-year-old Sasha Cohen's return to an ailing sport in search of an American star, ended with the sixth U.S. ladies' champion in the last six years and a reminder of the disconnect between the sport's judges and its fans.
The surprise winner—at least it was a surprise to the 9,020 people in the Spokane Arena, and to the millions more watching on television—was spunky 17-year-old Rachael Flatt, who landed seven clean triple jumps and, despite slow, labored spins, milked the controversial points system, which values technical competence over grace and style, to win her first national championship after being runner-up the last two years. In so doing Flatt became the first American woman to break the 200 point barrier (200.11) and cemented her reputation as an accomplished if workmanlike skater who dependably stays on her feet.
That assuredly is not the reputation Cohen will leave behind. Sasha, who hadn't competed anywhere for nearly four years, energized the event with a strong second-place finish in Thursday's short program. Looking as fit and flexible as she'd ever been, and more poised, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist left the audience buzzing and the other skaters starstruck. Flatt said it was "an honor to compete against her," while 16-year-old Mirai Nagasu, who won the short, called Cohen "a skating icon."
Sasha herself had been circumspect following the short program, quoting her 80-year-old coach, John Nicks: "'You can't win with the short, but you can lose with it.'" Asked whether she could also skate a clean free program, something she rarely did when competing full time, Sasha hedged, "Ice is slippery, as we all know."
It proved so on Saturday night, as Cohen fell on a triple flip, two-footed the landing on another jump and stepped out of a third. The mistakes cost her a chance to return to the Olympics a third time: She fell from second place to fourth in what she said will be her final competitive appearance.
That opened the door for Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champ, who had been written off after a five-inch growth spurt torpedoed her 2009 season. Needing a solid performance to claim one of the two spots on the Olympic team, the graceful Nagasu landed six triples and reeled off spins, spirals and transitions that made Flatt's efforts look awkward by comparison. Everyone in the building thought Nagasu had won. Everyone but the nine judges, that is. Nagasu finished with 188.78 points, nearly 12 behind Flatt—still good for second place and a trip to Vancouver. Three of her six triples had been downgraded for under-rotation, a mistake indiscernible to the untrained eye, and her artistic scores were essentially the same as Flatt's.
"She had a problem with her last triple toe," Frank Carroll, Nagasu's coach, fumed afterward. "There was nothing wrong with those other two jumps. Now I'm mad."
The crowd was merely perplexed, and the air went out of the building when the results were announced. You might say the judging left everyone but the winner feeling a little bit Flatt.