Cohen claims Skate America title

Posted: Sunday, October 26, 2003

READING, Pa. Sasha Cohen has found the formula for winning Grand Prix events. She simply stops thinking and starts skating.

Cohen won her third Grand Prix competition and her first Skate America title Saturday night with a solid and swift free skate program. The American, who turns 19 Sunday, also won the overall series crown in 2002.

''The biggest thing I know is I can do it,'' Cohen said. ''I just have to turn my brain off and let my body do the work.

''When you're twisting your body, the body works perfectly. I think just brains get in the way.''

The only thing getting in Cohen's way was the triple flip, which she two-footed. She had a shaky landing on a triple loop and was a bit out of synch with her music from ''Swan Lake.'' But that's quibbling. She's on a hot streak after winning an invitational earlier this month in New York, beating Michelle Kwan for the first time. And Cohen easily outdistanced the field at Skate America, earning 197.35 points in winning both the short program and free skate.

''I think the experience I've had competing has helped a lot,'' she said. ''I really picked up this season where I left off.''

Jennifer Kirk, with one of the best performances of her young career, was second.

''I think that was my best since I won world juniors (in 2000),'' she said. ''I was able to really relax and be confident.''

Cohen, Kirk, Ann Patrice McDonough and, of course, Kwan if she decides to compete this season are a formidable group of American women.

That's encouraging for the United States, which could struggle on the international scene in other disciplines this season.

But perhaps not in ice dancing, long a U.S. weakness. Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto became the first American dance team to take a Grand Prix event in six years when they won Saturday with a rousing free dance to ''West Side Story.'' They edged Ukraine's Elena Grushina and Ruslan Goncharov, who won the compulsories, and France's Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, who were first in the original dance, for the championship.

That, in itself, is unusual for the normally glacial scoring in ice dancing. But under the new judging system being used for the first time in the Grand Prix series, nothing seems set in stone. So Belbin and Agosto, ranked seventh in the world, were able to make something of a breakthrough their most significant win since capturing the world junior championship in 2002, and their biggest as seniors.

And coach Igor Shpilband handed each of them a DVD copy of the Oscar-winning ''West Side Story'' after the victory.

''We've both seen it,'' Belbin said, ''but we'll certainly keep watching it to inspire those emotions.''

Although ''West Side Story'' has been a fixture as figure skating music for more than four decades, Belbin and Agosto felt they could bring something fresh to the story. His costume certainly was novel, complete with a ripped, bloodstained shirt.

''It's not as elaborate as you think,'' he said of the outfit. ''The jeans are from a Levi's store, the shirt is from Express. We ripped it and had an artist airbrush it.''

The footwork in the midsection of the routine really got the Sovereign Center crowd involved, something the couple was counting on.

''When we first decided on 'West Side Story,' we knew we had to try to do something different. We didn't want it to be just another 'West Side Story' program,'' Agosto said. ''We gave it a little twist and kind of made it a flashback and a collection of all the emotions and feelings that go into the story.''

Belbin and Agosto finished with 212.08 points. Grushina and Goncharov were at 197.66.

The last U.S. ice dancers to win a Grand Prix event were five-time national champions Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow at the 1997 Skate America. Punsalan and Swallow, also coached by Shpilband, are the only American ice dancers ever to qualify for the Grand Prix final. Belbin-Agosto are off to a good start toward making this year's final.

China's Pang Qing and Tong Jian won the pairs even though they were second to Russia's Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov in the free skate Saturday night. The Chinese built a big enough lead in the short program to win 185.04 points to 184.92.

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