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Oh, so close

Cohen again fails to live up to expectations

TURIN, Italy

It was right there in her reach.The gold medal. The chance to be America's sweetheart. To be the savior of these dreary Olympics.

But Sasha Cohen couldn't grab it.

The porcelain doll cracked. She fell. And then fell again.

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Like so much else in these Olympics, Cohen failed to deliver on her potential and promise.

Though America's best gold medal hope recovered her poise, gathered herself together and ultimately had the silver medal slipped around her slender neck, she knew that Thursday was a failure. A missed opportunity.

She didn't try to hide her discontent with her performance.

"I didn't think I was going to get any medal," Cohen said. "Of course I was disappointed and in shock."

Cohen wasn't the only one who didn't deliver. Neither did her chief rival. And neither did Thursday night's figure skating climax.

On the medal podium stood just one clean skater: Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, the 24-year-old stealth gold medalist. Joining her were two skaters who clanked onto the ice. Neither Cohen nor Russian Irina Slutskaya skated to their potential.

World champion Slutskaya also fell. She didn't find one last triple jump to salvage her program. She allowed Cohen to back into the silver medal.

For the first time in recent Olympic memory, a sequined, lipsticked pixie didn't slam dunk the competition. No one brought down the house. No one created that uproarious swirl of goose bumps, tears and shock that Oksana Baiul and Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes all pulled off.

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"I think it was obvious that the standard of skating tonight was not particularly good," said Cohen's coach, John Nicks.

Thursday was a night to see who could stand up to the pressure. The only one who did was Arakawa. She carried the burden of a country that had failed to medal in any Olympic event here, until she supplied the country's first-ever skating gold.

The favorites cracked. And Cohen -- who had ascended to the top of America's expectations in Michelle Kwan's absence -- solidified her reputation as a breathtaking skater who can't deliver in the clutch.

Just like her teammates Bode Miller, Johnny Weir, Jeremy Bloom and all the hockey players -- of both genders -- Cohen didn't live up to her promise.

"I think I've definitely done more good shorts than good longs," said Cohen, who unfortunately can't get judges' points for honesty. "I've done quite a few good longs, just not always in the places and times I wanted to."

After her phenomenal short program, Cohen led by a slim margin. A solid free skate would have won her a gold medal -- but history hasn't been kind to the midway leaders. Kristi Yamaguchi, in 1992, was the last woman to win the gold after winning the short programs.

Things started to go badly in the warm-up. Cohen hit her first few triple jumps, but then "slammed" on her next two attempts.

"I was a little bit surprised," she said. "Physically I wasn't executing the way I expected to."

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She wouldn't blame her limitations on injury. She conceded that she has sore muscles, saying "I don't know the correct names, but they're the ones you need." She received ultrasound treatment and was pumped full of ibuprofen but said she felt good.

Cohen was the first contender to skate, going second in the final group. Before beginning, she put her hands in Nicks'.

"I said, 'Remember Tuesday night and do the same,' " said Nicks, who cracked, "She didn't listen."

Skating out to center ice dressed in burgundy her hair tucked in a gold chignon, Cohen's dark eyes looked like a fawn's caught in the high beams.

"I wasn't nervous, but a little apprehensive," she said, "knowing I missed my lutz and flip in the warm-ups."

She circled toward her first combination; she got the rotation on her lutz but fell badly on the landing. On her next jump, a triple salchow, she stumbled, putting her hands on the ice.

Just 30 seconds in, and her program was in ruins. But Cohen recovered, breathed deep and -- too late, but finally -- started to skate the way she can.

"I was surprised to learn for sure I was getting bronze," Cohen said, unenthusiastically. "And even more surprised when I was getting a silver. I was like, 'Oh, that's nice."'

But it wasn't really. It wasn't what she wanted.

It was another moment of unmet promise and frustration. In that way, Cohen has become the face of the Games. But not in the way she planned.

Ann Killion is a sports columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.

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