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Ice Wars _ Kwan vs. Cohen

February 10, 2002

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Even if they froze over the Great Salt Lake, there might not be a sheet of ice big enough for Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan.

OK, so there was a slight collision at warmups during last month’s U.S. championships that rattled Kwan. And so they ended up in the same corner at the same time during practice at the Salt Lake Ice Center, raising a few eyebrows in the crowd.

Head games on ice?

``Everything is made out 10 times greater than it is,″ Kwan said, chuckling at the notion of tension between her and Cohen. ``It’s kind of funny.″

Not to Cohen and her coach, John Nicks, who said he trained her just as he did all his other great skaters.

``To get into close contact is self-defeating,″ Nicks said.

But this is figure skating, the sport that gave us Tonya and Nancy. Any hint of a feud or controversy is breathlessly reported. The 17-year-old Cohen, from Laguna Niguel, Calif., is the latest flashpoint.

That she’s notoriously headstrong _ her frequent spats with Nicks are a running joke _ only adds to the drama.

The Kwan-Cohen hubbub began at the U.S. championships in Los Angeles. Cohen skated close to some of the other women during practices, and she brushed Kwan in the warmups before the free skate.

Kwan admitted their collision unnerved her, and she took some extra time to calm down before beginning her program. She managed quite nicely, winning her sixth U.S. title.

``People tend to look at things in detail, especially the media,″ Kwan said. ``First, it was that I was coachless, which WAS a big deal _ a big deal for me. Then it’s the warmups, which weren’t.″

Still, these are the Olympics and nothing about figure skating is taken lightly. So when she wandered into Kwan’s area during practice Friday, tongues were wagging all over again.

``It would be really silly if I try to follow other skaters because I wouldn’t get my stuff in and we can get hurt,″ Cohen said. ``I just focus on myself.″

But figure skating, particularly the ``ladies″ event, has a rich history of mind games. Katarina Witt used to stand at the side of the rink while others competed, watching everyone’s every move, her silent gaze like a million pins in a voodoo doll.

Then, during the Albertville Games, Surya Bonaly did a back flip during practice _ right in front of Midori Ito. The Japanese skater was so unnerved by the near miss she struggled to land a triple axel and decided to change her short program.

The other disciplines aren’t immune to nastiness, either. Pasha Grischuk, who won two gold medals in ice dance, changed her first name from Oksana simply because she didn’t want to be associated with Oksana Baiul.

``Girls just treat each other a little (nastier) than guys do,″ said Frank Carroll, Kwan’s former coach who also trains Olympian Timothy Goebel.

``If a guy bumps into a guy, it’s like, `Oh, sorry I did that.′ But if a girl bumps into a girl, it’s like, `Why did you do that?‴

The men aren’t as territorial.

``We’re very competitive when we get on the ice, but I think we have a deep respect for each other, too,″ U.S. Olympian Michael Weiss said. ``We watch out for each other a lot. We know each other’s patterns in and out of the jumps and in the programs.

``I think we’re very aware of each other and give the other person the right of way when they need it.″

As for Cohen, there won’t be any more collisions with Kwan _ at least not this week. She flew back to California on Saturday so she could train in a familiar setting before the women’s competition begins Feb. 19.

For what it’s worth, not everyone thinks she’s a hellion. President Bush stood next to Cohen during the opening ceremony and even chatted with her mother, Galina, by cell phone.

``He told me my daughter was very well-behaved,″ she said.

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