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Leaders Tumble, and Arakawa Wins Gold
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She was elegance on ice, her spirals superb, her skating sublime. That she was standing in the end didn't hurt, either.

Shizuka Arakawa made this one look easy. Her brilliant performance Thursday night gave Japan its first medal of these Olympics — a gold in the showcase event. What a way to end a shutout!

"I'm just surprised right now," Arakawa said. "I can't find the words for it."

Try mesmerizing, even spellbinding.

Everything American champion Sasha Cohen and Russian star Irina Slutskaya were not. They gave Arakawa plenty of help by tumbling to the ice often enough to make it a rout.

After the three were separated by a mere .71 points in the short program, Arakawa won the first figure skating gold ever for Japan by nearly eight points.

The 2004 world champion did it with a beauty and technical excellence that even had two-time Olympic winner Katarina Witt standing and applauding before she finished. Cohen fell twice and finished with a silver; Slutskaya fell once and took bronze.

"I think it was a gift," Cohen said. "I'm very pleased."

The Japanese team has struggled in the mountains and on the ice in Turin. But Arakawa, third after the short program behind Cohen and Slutskaya, was magnificent. Her spectacular spirals thrilled the crowd and, more importantly, impressed the judges.

"I didn't feel so much pressure about that," Arakawa said, referring to Japan's disappointing games. "I am very happy that I am the one who won it."

Emotionless for most of her four-minute routine, Arakawa broke into a smile that only got bigger when the scores were flashed. When her personal best of 125.32 points for the free skate were displayed, she flashed a "V" for victory sign then pumped her fist when she moved into first place with 191.34 points.

Cohen already flubbed her first two jumps — and her shot at gold.

"I was very disappointed with my skate," Cohen said. "I definitely gave 100 percent in my effort, I gave it my all. So I have no regrets with that. But it just wasn't my night."

That left Slutskaya, a two-time world champion and 2002 Olympic silver medalist. She lacked sparkle in her free skate and the fall crushed any chance she had.

"It's life, it's competition, and we can't change anything right now," she said.

That ended Russia's hopes for an unprecedented sweep of the gold after taking the men's, pairs and ice dancing titles.

The 24-year-old Arakawa became just the second Japanese skater with any Olympic medal; Midori Ito, one of Arakawa's idols, won silver behind Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. Ito led the cheers of the flag-waving Japanese in the crowd.

Cohen's history of falling in the biggest international events bit her again.

Even her first U.S. title last month came with some questions because nine-time champion Michelle Kwan was sidelined. She also collapsed in the 2003 and 2004 national championships that went to Kwan, and the 2004 worlds won by Arakawa.

Not to mention the Salt Lake City Olympics, where she faded from third after the short program and Sarah Hughes soared from fourth to the top.

"I enjoyed the experience," Cohen said. "I'm just really ecstatic to come out with a medal."

Looking nervous when she took the ice, Cohen never gave herself an opportunity for the gold after carrying a tiny lead into the free skate. She went down heavily on a triple lutz that ruined a planned three-jump combination, then put two hands on the ice on a triple flip.

The rest of her program was strong enough to keep her on the podium, but Cohen once again couldn't seize the moment.

Emily Hughes, Sarah's 17-year-old sister, fell on a triple loop and shortened another jump, but her seventh-place finish was remarkable for a newcomer.

"I am really excited about what happened, this being my first Olympics and my first big international. I am taking away a lot from this competition," said Hughes, who replaced the injured Kwan and arrived in Turin just a week before the free skate.

The other American, 16-year-old Kimmie Meissner, wound up sixth, one spot down from her standing after the short program.

"For my first pretty big international competition and the Olympics, I think I did pretty good," Meissner said.

Arakawa landed five triples, three in combination, and her gliding lean-back move, performed directly in front of the judges, was particularly brilliant.

Highlighting it all was her speed, interpretation of "Violin Fantasy of Turandot" by Puccini, and overall beauty.

The win also capped a comeback this season for Arakawa, who, after winning the 2004 world championship, fell to ninth at last year's competition. She was just third at the Japanese nationals this year. Then again, Sarah Hughes won the 2002 Olympics after a third-place finish at the U.S. nationals.

Arakawa sang her national anthem on the podium, then held the medal tight while she took a victory lap — only letting go when she was handed a Japanese flag.

Cohen also waved, but Slutskaya stood stone-faced on the podium.She looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but the Palavela arena.

Cohen's silver was the eighth ever by an American woman and the second for the United States in the games; ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won the other. Those were the only U.S. figure skating medals in Turin.

(AP via China Daily February 24, 2006)

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