Cohen chases what glitters: Is it a gold medal or tinsel?


The Kickoff


It's two weeks before Christmas and Sasha Cohen is nearly mistletoed out. "I feel like Santa Claus this season," America's greatest skating actress says. "I've been opening all the rinks." Whenever a monster evergreen has been lit, from New York to Dallas to San Diego, Cohen has been there, laced-up and luminous.

Since the Olympics, she has been everywhere, it seems - partying at the Oscars and the Emmys, touring Japan, throwing out the first pitch at an Arizona Diamondbacks game, celebrity-styling for Modern Bride, making commercials, TV episodes, movies. Sunday afternoon, she was inside Boston University's Agganis Arena, winning the Marshalls Challenge ahead of fellow diva Johnny Weir.

It was what skating cognoscenti call a "cheesefest," a live-TV, judged-by-the-fans, "East vs. West" exhibition that was whatever the skaters wanted it to be. "It's about entertaining the audience," Cohen says. "A little bit of everything we love and having a good time."

It decidedly wasn't about grades of execution and scales of values, about technical elements and program components. For Cohen, it may never be again. With the U.S. championships just six weeks off, she still hasn't decided whether she'll go to Spokane, Wash., to defend her title. "My options are open," Cohen says. "Which is how I like them."

Most of those options, though, don't involve serious competition. Ever since she turned up in Cleveland six years ago at age 15 and came within 22 seconds and one slip of dethroning Michelle Kwan, Cohen has been the sport's reigning swan, the most graceful and photogenic skater on the planet. Even if she never won anything, she eventually would have found her way to Hollywood.

Now that she has a national crown and an Olympic silver medal, the silver screen has become her second home, Will Ferrell, Don Johnson and Ben Stiller her new pals. Cohen plays a "mean, snobby" horsewoman in Moondance Alexander. In Blades of Glory, due out in March, she plays herself. On this week's CSI: NY episode, she plays a skater whose best friend is murdered. "There are some emotional scenes," she reports.

Playing a skater finally may have become more attractive than being a skater for Cohen, as it was for Sonja Henie, who went Hollywood in the 1930s after winning three Olympic and 10 straight world titles. Cohen hasn't accomplished anything near that, but she likely has done as much as she can in the sport.

At 22, she's the oldest American woman still on the scene (Michelle Kwan hasn't retired, but hasn't competed in nearly two years). Kimmie Meissner, the world champion, is 17, as is Emily Hughes. Even if Cohen gets into top shape - and she's nowhere near - there's no guarantee that she'll retain her title next month. Even if she does, she won't be favored at the world championships against a bunch of Japanese women who'll be skating on their home ice.

Unless she craves the global gold that has eluded her five times, there's little professional upside for Cohen to keep competing. She's already the darling of the show circuit, the undisputed people's choice (she blew away Weir on Sunday) at every cheesefest in the land. Her acting career is taking off and she can model indefinitely. It's Project Runway from here on out.

So nobody expects to see Cohen in Spokane. She skipped the Grand Prix season this fall and hasn't competed in a major event in almost nine months. Not that she can't ramp up in a jiffy, she insists.

When she was in Boston last year, Cohen was still struggling with fitness after injuring a hip. A few weeks later, she won her first U.S. crown. "To get ready is not a problem," she says.

The problem is deciding whether she wants to, while everyone has been will-you-or-won't-you-ing? her. "I've answered that question, like, 100 ways," Cohen says.

Even her skating colleagues can't say what she'll do. "We ask her, but we can never get a clear answer," says a shrugging Weir, who'll definitely be going for a fourth straight title next month.

The answer Cohen does give is deliberately vague and a decided departure from the usual post-Olympic year noncommitment most skaters give. She's definitely planning to compete in the 2009 world championships in Los Angeles and the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Cohen says. She just doesn't know about this year or next year.

All she knows is that she's on CSI tomorrow and that her second movie is in post-production and that her mailbox is crammed with red-carpet invitations. Maybe the best way for the U.S. Figure Skating people to get Sasha Cohen (not to be confused with Sacha Baron Cohen) to nationals is to make a movie about it and cast her alongside Christina Aguilera. It worked at the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

John Powers writes for The Boston Globe.

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