Skater's Comeback Falls Short Of Winter Games

Teenagers Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu stole the show and qualified for the Winter Olympics while former Olympian Sasha Cohen's night ended in disappointment at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash., Saturday night.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

They handed out medals last night after the ladies final at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Washington. They could've passed around a torch too. Teenagers Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu stole the show and qualified for next month's winter Olympics. But a 25-year-old former Olympian trying to make a comeback had her night end in disappointment - again.

From Spokane, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: After it was over, with all the jumps landed and the spins spun, second-place finisher and new Olympian Mirai Nagasu had an answer for all those who may have been asking: Mirai who?

Ms. MIRAI NAGASU (Figure Skater): We don't have, like, a strong Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamaguchi to lead us on, but I feel that even though we're young, we have our big dreams to lead us on and that's what motivates us. And hopefully we can represent the U.S. well at the Olympics.

(Soundbite of music)

GOLDMAN: Nagasu's four-minute free skate to "Carmen" opened with a bang and never let up. Her challenging routine filled with difficult jumps, spins and elastic body positions had the crowd on its feet before the 16-year-old bundle of energy finally stopped moving.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOLDMAN: The judges marked down a few of Nagasu's jumps, which kept her from winning the competition. She didn't mind, because to her the performance was a triumph over the self doubt that had clouded her mind since winning this event two years ago. That's right - national women's champion at the age of 14. Her coach, Frank Carroll, says that was part of the problem - winning as a carefree 14-year-old.

Mr. FRANK CARROLL (Figure Skating Coach): And then suddenly the next year she realized she had to work her - to keep it going or accomplish that again, and I don't think she had any concept of that because it was just natural to her.

GOLDMAN: Carroll says improving her skating technique helped Nagasu quiet the voices inside telling her she was worthless and not a good skater. While Nagasu has worked to add technique to her natural artistry, her new Olympic teammate, 17-year-old Rachael Flatt, is striving to do the opposite.

(Soundbite of announcement)

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: Flatt's technical score following her performance drew cheers from the crowd. It was a powerful, athletic performance filled with difficult triple jumps cleanly landed. After two straight years of being runner-up at the nationals, Flatt had the title and her first Olympics. But she said she wanted more. In this case, more of what Nagasu has: the ability to be spectacular.

Ms. RACHAEL FLATT (U.S. Figure Skating Champion): You know, I've been pushing the envelope, but I haven't quite been 100 percent happy with, you know, with all of my performances. I've been on the cusp of doing great performances, but I've never been completely satisfied.

GOLDMAN: Sounds like a good set up for Vancouver, eh? At least Flatt has the opportunity for greatness at next month's Olympics. Not so for the skater who commanded most of the attention here in Spokane: 25-year-old Sasha Cohen, a 2006 Olympic silver medalist, a woman who has mesmerized with her grace and broken hearts with her mistakes.

She was back after a four-year hiatus from competition, and as it turns out, nothing had changed - her beauty and her bungles. A tentative free skate finally imploded. Listen carefully here.

(Soundbite of groaning)

GOLDMAN: That groan was when Cohen fell awkwardly on a jump and put the comeback on ice - literally. But afterwards, she came out and met reporters with a smile.

Ms. SASHA COHEN (Figure Skater): You know, it wasn't any, like, regret or, you know, wishing that I could do it again. Just really proud and special to be back after four years and be with this new field of girls and really proud of what this year has brought me.

GOLDMAN: Brought her to the end, someone asked? I dont know, she said, and then reconsidered. The one thing I knew for sure, said Sasha Cohen, is that everything always changes.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Spokane.

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