Starr: The Decline of U.S. Women's Figure Skating

Sasha Cohen was figure skating's great alchemist, always turning gold into silver or bronze. She retired three years ago, at 21, after two performances—first at the Turin Olympics and then at the world championships—that were quintessentially Sasha. They combined moments of breathtaking artistry—a ballerina's elegant, dazzling footwork and an ethereal quality—with those decidedly un-ethereal moments when Cohen crashed on her butt, a little-girl-lost expression on her face.

She departed the sport with silver and bronze medals rather than the pair of golds that could have been hers had Cohen just stayed on her feet for four minutes. But this week, with the World Figure Skating Championships in her hometown of Los Angeles, Cohen has told The New York Times that she is flirting with a comeback aimed at next year's Olympics in Vancouver. "If I come back, I think I could be better than I ever was," she told the Times's Juliet Macur.

Cohen has several excellent reasons to contemplate a return to the ice. Her dream of a Hollywood career hasn't materialized, and fame is fleeting. She is now less famous than that Sacha Cohen who is Borat. And while skating's Sasha Cohen still performs on tour, a figure skater is far more marketable if she can wrap fans in an Olympic dream. That's why an even more illustrious skater, the five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, is also talking comeback—even though she has been off the ice longer, has already undergone arthroscopic hip surgery and would be, by the sport's standards, a geriatric 28 years old in Vancouver.

What makes Cohen's and Kwan's comeback notions something more than a pipe dream is one look at the U.S. field in the ladies' competition that begins Friday at the world championships. In an event with an extraordinary American legacy—a half century of skating queens from Tenley Albright to Carol Heiss to Peggy Fleming to Dorothy Hamill to Kristi Yamaguchi to Kwan—American talent appears at low ebb. This year's contingent at the worlds is U.S. Figure Skating's weakest since the early '60s, when it was recovering from the plane crash that killed its team en route to the 1961 worlds.

There has been no misfortune to rival that tragedy. Still, the American ladies, of late, have been unlucky. Age and injuries have taken an unanticipated toll on veterans like former world champion Kimmie Meissner and 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes, who aren't yet 20 years old and might have been expected to anchor the team through Vancouver. Moreover, with the ever-increasing technical demands for jumps, steps and spins, it is more difficult for youngsters to perform consistently and make the giant leap to the next level.

Rule changes aimed at protecting younger athletes from the physical and mental rigors of the sport have also impeded their development. The world championships were once a proving ground for young talent. Kwan skated at her first worlds when she was just 13 years old, finishing eighth; two years later, at 15, she won the first of her five world titles. Last year three promising teens—ages 14, 15 and 14—finished in the top four at the U.S. championships, but all were, by rule, too young to compete at the worlds. The U.S. ladies who wound up at the worlds were wobbly, and their weak performances—finishing seventh, 10th and 16th—cost the U.S. a third spot in this year's competition.

This year that problem was compounded when one of the remaining two spots went to 21-year-old Alissa Czisny, the upset winner at the 2009 nationals. Czisny was competing in her eighth nationals, with only one bronze medal to show for her efforts, and a reputation for buckling under pressure. She successfully completed only three triple jumps, but won gold anyway—largely by staying on her feet and averting the disasters that felled other skaters. The second place on the world team went to 16-year-old Rachel Flatt, a steady and technically proficient skater, but also the blandest of America's up-and-coming teens.

Caroline Zhang, at her best an electrifying performer, is the top-ranked American skater at No. 8 in the world, according to the rankings. But she took the bronze medal and, with the U.S. lacking a third spot on its team, a seat on the sidelines for the worlds. The Americans may have to get used to the smaller number. To reclaim a third spot, Flatt and Czisny, ranked 10th and 16th in the world, will have to finish no worse than a combined 13th. Hopes for that prospect dimmed when the duo finished seventh and 10th at a run-up event last month. (Zhang finished fourth at the same event, giving rise to more consternation about the composition of the team.)

The public no doubt will greet the trial balloons floated by Cohen and Kwan enthusiastically. Still, for all the beauty and grace they bring to the ice, it's unlikely that either could meet the technical challenges that, after all, doomed their Olympic gold-medal dreams back when they were both younger and sprier. This country's future in ladies' skating will be brighter if the 2010 Games serve not as a sentimental journey, but as a launch for the next generation . Then, in the ensuing world championships and on to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, these ladies just might rediscover American skating's vein of gold.

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