STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's some of the news from the Winter Olympics in Italy. A dramatic ladies figure skating competition ended with a surprise winner. The free skate was supposed to be a gold medal duel between American Sasha Cohen and Russian Irina Slutskaya. Neither one took the gold. It went instead to Shizuka Arakawa of Japan who stole the show and made history. She is the first Japanese figure skater to win an Olympic gold medal. From Turin, NPR's Tom Goldman has more.
TOM GOLDMAN reporting:
After her stunning victory, Shizuka Arakawa said through a translator: I'm surprised right now and can't find the words to express what I'm feeling. That's okay because she said all she needed to on the ice. Arakawa skated a memorable four minute program. Tall for her sport at 5'5", Arakawa's height seemed to enhance her majestic spins and spirals. Her jumps were big and clean. She landed 11 of them, including five triple jumps.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Unidentified Announcer: The technical score please.
(Soundbite of applause and cheers)
Unidentified Announcer: Her technical score is 62.32 points.
GOLDMAN: With the judges' confirmation, Arakawa suddenly had a chance for a gold medal. Her marks moved her ahead of co-favorite Sasha Cohen who had fallen once and stumbled another time. Now, there was one more co-favorite to get past. Twenty-seven-year old Russian veteran Irina Slutskaya chose dazzle over majesty as she took to the ice in an electric red and black dress splattered with sequins. It was a perfect match for the spicy flamenco music she skated to. Halfway through her program, though, Slutskaya didn't seem to have her usual pep but she was skating cleanly until she went up for one of her routine jumps...
(Soundbite of crowd)
GOLDMAN: ...and came down on her bottom.
Ms. IRINI SLUTSKAYA (Figure Skater, Russian Olympic Team, 2006 Winter Games): Of course I'm disappointed because that jump, you know, usually I jump just on exhibition; there's no problem for me (laughs) but it's competition. That's life.
GOLDMAN: And it cost her the gold medal. She won bronze while a less than perfect performance from Sasha Cohen dropped her to silver. This was supposed to be Cohen's moment. Cohen led the competition early in the week thanks to a beautiful short program. She came into the free skate with a slim lead over Slutskaya and a major burden on her shoulders.
The most graceful skater in the world, 21-year-old Cohen has a reputation for making mistakes in big events. Sure enough, Cohen came onto the ice for warm-ups looking tight. She fell twice during warm-ups (not a good sign) and then just 20 seconds into her performance, she fell again. Next time she jumped, she almost fell but braced herself with both hands on the ice. Cohen rallied to complete her program nicely, but the damage was done. Leaving the ice, her voice trembled as she spoke to coach John Nicks.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Ms. SASHA COHEN (Figure Skater, U.S. Olympic Team, 2006 Winter Games): I tried. I couldn't get up on those jumps.
GOLDMAN: There were questions as to why she couldn't get up on the jumps and suspicion that she was injured. Cohen had an ice pack on her leg after the short program and said last night she'd been dealing with little nagging hurts but nothing major. She refused to blame her on-ice problems on injury although she did rattle off an impressive array of pain medication that helped her perform.
Ms. COHEN: No shots, I don't like needles, but I have, you know, a variety of, like, ultrasound and phonophoresis and celebrex and Tylenol and a nice combination.
GOLDMAN: With the physical pain apparently under control, Cohen was left to deal with the psychic pain of unmet expectations again. But if Cohen still seems like she's in the same place she was several years ago, making blunders in big events, at least she seems better equipped to deal with it now as a 21-year-old.
Ms. COHEN: I don't usually cry unless I'm very angry and, you know, I'm not just angry, I'm kind of just on the let-down a little bit. Ultimately, it's four minutes of one day in my life and I look back on the past four years and I've had such an incredible journey in this process and I've grown so much as a person and an athlete.
GOLDMAN: So, too, has Shizuka Arakawa. The world champion of 2004, she fell in the rankings after that as younger skaters in Japan emerged. Three months ago, 24-year-old Arakawa changed coaches, costumes, even her skating program. Like Cohen, she's had quite a journey. Unlike Sasha Cohen, four minutes of one day have brought her journey to a happy end.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Turin.
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