By Alexandra Stevenson
The reporter for the Hartford Courant was looking for a pleasant Christmas Eve story at one of his nearby rinks in Simsbury, Connecticut. The holiday season’s goodwill was evident and the good fairy, charismatic skating star Sasha Cohen, was handing out cookies to the workers.
But the scoop he got was quite a shockeroo. Behind the scenes, ferment was broiling. In an astonishing development, Cohen revealed she and coach Tatiana Tarasova had split, only two weeks before nationals. She would now be instructed by Robin Wagner who guided Sarah Hughes to Olympic gold, the only American skater ever to win that illustrious prize without claiming a national title.
The split allegedly was due to Tarasova’s ill-health.
"Bah! Humbug!" declared veteran Chicago Tribune Olympic reporter, Phil Hersh. He wrote, "The coach took the fall for Cohen’s pratfalls."
After a summer of strength training with a well-known (in Russia) fitness expert imported to the United States by Tarasova, Cohen started this season in great form. She beat, for the first time, the admittedly under-trained five-time world and seven-time U.S. champion, Michelle Kwan, in a made-for-television contest in New York.
Then came glorious victories in three Grand Prix events where the new CoP system seemed to be tailored for her. Tarasova sought every opportunity to exploit the new system to gain extra points for her pupil. It was predicted Cohen would be the star of CoP which the ISU is trying to bring in for all of next season’s events. Advocates for the system say less emphasis is on jumping and more credit is given for spirals, spins and footwork which are Cohen’s strong points.
But then in a second made-for-television program in Auburn Hills, Kwan, despite a fall, completely outclassed Cohen. In the space of four minutes Cohen hit the ice three times and finished third. Tarasova’s magic was no longer working.
Apparently dissention, perhaps fueled by cultural differences, between the Cohen family and Tarasova began. Cohen was ill after her third Grand Prix win in Paris and had a temperature. Tarasova told Russian newspaper reporters that she recommended she withdraw from the event, which she considered unimportant.
However, the family considered their contractual obligations binding. Cohen was a major star and the amount television companies pay the USFSA depends on who takes part. In hindsight, Tarasova’s suggestion was wise and she was probably hurt that her words were disregarded. She was not used to her decisions being countered.
Only days after this debacle, Cohen had to compete in the Grand Prix final and, as detailed in this website’s reports on that event, fell once in the short program and twice in the long and was soundly beaten by Fumie Suguri.
Suguri, who won the bronze medals at the last two World Championships, in which Cohen finished fourth, subsequently had her own problems. She lost the Japanese Championship which she had won for the past three years, to Miki Ando, who completely eclipsed Suguri, delighting spectators and judges alike by landing a quad Salchow.)
"It’s true I didn’t have my best performances in the Grand Prix Final," Sasha confessed. "I was coming back from being sick. Next year probably I won’t plan to do so many events. I was missing training time at home."
The Rubenesque-figured Tarasova certainly has health problems. She has had heart attacks and has not obeyed her doctor’s orders to lose weight. But it is certainly unusual for someone to make the momentous decision, virtually overnight, to return to Russia after living in the United States for many years, thereby abandoning her main protégé at the most important time of the year.
Wagner said she was on vacation in Florida and got the Cohens’ message when she called in for her messages. Aware of the urgency of the situation, she immediately returned north and had dinner with the family on Sunday, December 21st. By Tuesday she was on the ice training Sasha.
A week later, on December 30, obviously still in the raptures of the honeymoon stage, Sasha declared in a telephone press conference, "With this one week behind us we've already made a lot of improvements. I feel really comfortable with Robin, and we still have a whole other week before nationals. I feel great, and I'm really glad I switched when I did. I'm really happy with my decision.
"When we work together, she brought back more of the fun and joy to training. At the same time she pushes me just as hard, if not harder. I think the two of those aspects combined are going to be great in the long run to keep up the enjoyment, just having fun over the next few years – getting to where I want to be but enjoying the process as well. I love the arena at Atlanta. I think that there’re a lot of strong skaters at Nationals. I’ve been good about shifting the focus from others to myself, concentrating on doing the best I can and having fun and letting everything else take care of itself."
A lot of specifics appear yet to be decided. Though they are currently skating in Simsbury, their likely training site may be Hackensack, New Jersey.
The 19-year-old Sasha is also thrilled at the prospect of possibly living in New York City with her parents. "My (younger) sister (Natasha) is doing fabulously in school here (at the famous Miss Porter’s) – she might want to board there – and we could see her at weekends."
Wagner said, "I spent a lot of time talking with Sasha, and I felt confident that she was comfortable with the decision. As long as she was 100 percent go, I certainly had no doubts that we would be fine for nationals."
Are they making any changes to Cohen’s routines for Atlanta? "We’ve tweaked the programs but haven’t done anything drastic," said Wagner. Anything specific? Cohen revealed, "Little things. Things that we did for CoP – extra positions and steps. We’ve lost them so that the flow and speed is better."
Wagner, who did not have any other pupil while she trained Hughes exclusively, said she had left a telephone message for Hughes to inform her of the situation with Cohen but they had not talked. She had not been on the ice with her since last April, shortly after Worlds when Hughes took part in a televised contest.
Since then Hughes has entered Yale University. Wagner said, "She’s a grown, young woman. She didn't express any interest in coming back to competitive skating. I'm a competitive coach – that's what I love, that's where my heart is. I love the tension, the pressure, the competitive scene. I love the media. So I was anxious to move my career on, and I'm able to do that now."
Some skaters had approached Wagner but she didn’t think that would have been the best situation for either side. "I decided to wait it out. Now I'm glad I did. I share a passion with Sasha for music and art and for skating. We believe in the same things."
Cohen said, "I like that she skates alongside her skater. I have seen her (training Sarah) for several years. I was looking for a person who was very committed, experienced and really enjoyed coaching who was compatible with me. I know how dedicated she has been to her skaters. We’re definitely in for the long term. I look forward to having fun over the next few years."
That sounds all well and good, but, after all, what else can she say? For most of her career Cohen was coached by John Nicks. They enjoyed (if you can call it that) a strangely adversarial relationship, beloved by the media.
Then the whole family moved from California to Connecticut to Tarasova who has trained many Olympic champions including the current men's gold medalist, Alexei Yagudin, dancers galore, and the legendary pair skater, Irina Rodnina and her second partner and one-time husband, Alexander Zaitsev in their final competitive days.
However Yagudin had joined Tarasova after he’d won his first world title when his technique had been finely honed. She was not lauded as a "jumps" coach and this is definitely Cohen’s weak area.
The news of Cohen’s regrouping followed that of Kwan’s less shocking but still unusual change.
In mid-November, Kwan took her boots to an Armenia who taught in Russia for many years and who is stationed at Lake Arrowhead where she trained with Frank Carroll for many years. Rafael Arutunian coached until relatively recently one of the top long-time Russian competitors, Alexander Abt who is now training with Alexander Zhulin in New Jersey.
Arutunian has also established a name for himself because of his skill in handling boots which are made so that they do not give and are always causing skaters great discomfort, grief and angst.
While she was trying out his adjustments, he made some comments and suggestions on how she should do various moves. They clicked and the 46 year old, who makes himself understood in English but is not fluent, is now Kwan’s coach of record.
No one appeared more surprised than Arutunian. "I think I am the luckiest man in the world."
That sentiment was similar to that expressed by Scott Williams when Kwan approached him at the end of the summer of 2002. Williams joined Kwan on a very informal non-contract basis – "more as a friend" he said at the time.
Kwan had shocked the entire skating fraternity at the start of the 2001 Skate America by dumping Carroll, who had trained her since 1992 – for nearly a decade! That was just months before the Olympic Games.
Even more astounding was the fact that she did not seek a replacement. Did that cost her gold? Who knows? In Salt Lake she did have a flawed triple flip. Could the constant watchful eye of an experienced coach have prevented that?
Kwan has encountered much criticism on the internet because her programs tend to be similar in content. That may no longer be the case. At a recent training session she jokingly called out to Arutunian, who was revising the long program’s contents, "You’re taking up all my resting spots."
In any case, both Kwan, who will be taking part in seniors for a record twelve times, and Cohen say they are ready for Atlanta. It could be the most exciting battle for years. The saga continues ...
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