SPOKANE -- Sasha Cohen has quite the hold on figure skating.
It's been almost four years since she last competed, and no one has even seen her skate recently. Yet her presence hung over every event this season, and she's the only woman on anyone's mind at these U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"Have you seen Sasha?"
"What have you heard about Sasha?"
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"Do you think Sasha is going to compete?"
"Everybody thinks so many different things," Cohen said after the mere confirmation she would be at nationals -- the women take the ice Thursday -- generated more buzz than anything any of the current U.S. women have done. "Some people love me, some people hate me. Some people think I'm going to compete for the next 10 years, some people were ready to write me off five years ago. You can't listen to what people say.
"This is for me because I want to do it, and I want to perform again."
That Cohen remains so enchanting is hardly a surprise.
Tiny (she could be a ballerina), beautiful and unbelievably flexible -- coach John Nicks likes to say it's impossible for her to get in an ugly position -- she can be breathtaking to watch, the kind of skater that made fans fall in love with the sport in the first place.
Funny, personable and, at times, feisty, she gives skating some personality, an edge that makes people feel they have to tune in just to see what she does next.
And she is, of course, immensely talented.
The reigning Olympic silver medalist and a three-time world medalist, she has no idea what life is like outside the top five. Just the thought of her is a soothing reminder of the good old days, when the Americans were fixtures at the top of the figure skating world.
But expecting Cohen's return to be an instant fix for the recent woes of the U.S. women is a lot to put on her slim shoulders. Four years is an eternity in skating, and the sport has changed in her absence. At 25, she's six years older than Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada, the last two world champions. With the United States having only two spots at the Vancouver Olympics, there is little, if any, margin for error for her.
None of that, though, fazes Cohen.
"What I feel from that is I feel so happy that people want me back, that they're excited to see me, that they missed me, that it means something to them to have me there," she said. "For me, I feel just pressure from myself."
Rumors of Cohen's comeback kept the skating grapevine humming for more than a year. She was only 21 when she stepped away after the 2006 worlds, and skaters are sticking around longer now, finding success at later ages. Though she was the star attraction on the "Stars on Ice" tour, her acting career hadn't advanced past the dabbling stage.
Finally, last May, Cohen announced she would, indeed, resume competitive training with the intention of making her third Olympic squad.
"I wanted to wait until I knew that's what I wanted to do," she said. "I had this overwhelming feeling that this is what I want to do, I want to embrace this challenge. I waited for the decision to pick me, I didn't force something. It was always something that was on my mind, but it's not something like, 'Oh! I'm going to the movies.' If you do this, you DO this."
But why? After devoting most of her life to training, she was just starting to explore life on her own terms. She hasn't lost her passion for acting and dreams of going to college at NYU. Her comeback put all of that on hold.
The answer is surprisingly simple.
"It was great having fun for three years, but then it kind of seemed pointless. What am I waking up for?" Cohen said. "I have the next 50 years of my life to meander and figure things out. I want another year of intensity, I want to push myself to see what I'm capable of, set down the bottom line.
"What I'm asking myself to do is really tough," she added. "The system's changed and the skaters have changed and everything's different. I haven't been here for a few years, and I'm older. But yeah, lay it down, see what you have, see if you can do it."
She threw herself into the process, leaving her family and the relaxing environs of Newport Beach, Calif., for Lake Arrowhead, where she was the oldest skater at the rink by far, and online shopping and learning to cook Chinese food passed as her entertainment.
She upended her training routine, too. She is so close to Nicks he's like part of her family (when her younger sister celebrated her birthday last summer, Nicks was at the party), and she called him frequently to bounce thoughts and ideas off of him. But she opted to train with Rafael Arutunian, who once coached Michelle Kwan. She also worked with respected choreographer Lori Nichol for the first time.
Even when she'd return to Orange County to visit her family, Cohen's focus was evident. The woman who once guest judged on "Project Runway" showed up for a lunch interview in black workout clothes and sneakers, and ate with a big ice pack wrapped around her ankle.
"I'll ice my leg and walk around the grocery store, go to the drug store," she said. "Everyone's looking at me like, 'What are you doing? It doesn't matter to me. I'm just in my own little world."
But distractions and challenges quickly intruded. A week before she was to return to competition at Trophee Eric Bompard, the season's first Grand Prix, she dropped out because of tendinitis in her right calf. Still in pain a month later, she withdrew from Skate America.
By early December, she was back at her old rink full time. It wasn't long before she was back with Nicks, too.
"I learned a lot from Rafael, but I decided to go back to what worked before and someone I was comfortable with putting me on the ice," Cohen said. "I'm going back to what works."
Whether it will be enough, though, remains to be seen.
Because no one has seen Cohen skate recently, rumors about her condition and capabilities abound.
She is scheduled to arrive here tonight, and her practice Wednesday is the most highly anticipated event in years.
The women's short program is Thursday.
"I've trained my butt off this year," she said. "I keep coming in and doing my run-throughs, doing everything I need to do. Things haven't been easy, but it really is true: That which does not kill you makes you stronger."