King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Arakawa's "good, quality performance" is enough for gold as Cohen and Slutskaya fall. Plus: Clutch Swedish curlers.

Published February 24, 2006 5:00PM (EST)

So the woman nobody was talking about ended up winning it. Here's another way to put it: The woman who didn't choke got the gold medal.

Shizuka Arakawa was right there after the women's figure skating short program, in third place, within a point of the leader, American Sasha Cohen. But all the attention went to Cohen and the Russian favorite, Irina Slutskaya. They were the ones with the fabulous back stories of previous Olympic failure and, in Slutskaya's case, illness, her own and her mother's.

But Cohen, skating second in the last group of six, fell twice in her warmup, looked petrified as she took the ice, and fell hard on her first jump. She nearly fell on her second too, putting both hands on the ice.

A superstar in waiting since she finished fourth at Salt Lake as a 17-year-old, she continued her career-long pattern of failing in the free skate in major events after performing well on the first night. She said she didn't feel nervous and wasn't injured, it just wasn't her night.

But she looked nervous.

Slutskaya skated last, after Arakawa had followed Cohen's failure by skating a clean program. She wasn't spectacular, didn't bring down the house. She wasn't Sarah Hughes in Salt Lake City or Tara Lipinski in Nagano.

It was a nice routine and won her a rousing ovation from the crowd, but when she finished, nobody in the world had the immediate thought: "Now that was a gold-medal performance." Including, no doubt, Arakawa.

But Slutskaya, who could have blown Arakawa away by skating her own clean program, made it golden. She fell on a triple flip that she would later say is an everyday jump for her, a practice jump. Then she took other triple jumps out of her program and looked shaky as she struggled through her routine. Gone was Tuesday night's confident dynamo.

The Russian skating federation had protested Slutskaya's 2002 loss to Hughes, citing unobjective judging -- say it ain't so! She'd waited four years for her next Olympic chance and she came to Turin as the favorite. But when the lights were brightest, with her main rival having faltered, she faltered too.

And while Cohen was able to rally after her two mishaps and skate well, Slutskaya was lackluster. Cohen won the silver medal, referring to it later as "a gift" because she thought her mishaps had put her out of medals contention.

Slutskaya settled for a bronze that she reportedly threw into a locker after the medals ceremony. The bronze may have disgusted her, but she had no argument this time that she deserved better.

So Arakawa's maybe bronze, maybe fourth-place-type performance became a winner. Within a few hours, history was already being revised. On NBC, Jim Lampley wrapped up the late-night show by calling Arakawa's performance "mesmerizing." It wasn't. What was mesmerizing was the battle of nerves, and the way so many lost that battle.

For all its shortcomings as a sport, one thing figure skating has is that pressure-packed Olympic final. The women's free skate is such a huge event, it comes down not so much to who's the best skater but to who can best control her nerves.

It's like a whole night of one do-or-die, last-second free throw after another. Only the margin for error on a free throw is a little wider than the blade of an ice skate.

It's a glorious moment when someone overcomes or ignores that immense pressure and skates brilliantly. But those moments are rare -- pull one off and you'll probably win a gold medal -- and there was nothing like one Thursday. A couple of skaters had nice routines. There was Arakawa, of course, and in the penultimate group Canadian Joannie Rochette turned in a solid free skate to move from ninth place to fifth.

But the evening was notable for the failures, and it wasn't just Cohen and Slutskaya. So many skaters faltered that when the eventual winner came off the ice following her routine, NBC commentator Dick Button said, "How great it is to see a skater do as well as they can possibly within the framework. She did double a few things instead of tripling them, but wasn't it nice to see a good, quality performance."

It's a rough night when you're reduced to being thankful for mere competence.

I can't think of another sporting event where nerves play such an overwhelming role, where the top performers in the world get together on the biggest stage and, one after another, time after time, fail to do something they're perfectly capable of doing in less pressure-filled situations. In other words, choke.

Figure skating has that ridiculously small margin of error. Lose your skate edge once and you've blown it. But other sports have small margins too.

The gold medal was contested in one of those a few hours before the figure-skating competition: women's curling.

Sweden beat Switzerland 7-6 for the gold. The Swedes looked like they'd win the game in regulation but the Swiss came up with a huge 10th and final end, scoring two and forcing extra ends.

In the 11th, Swedish skip Anette Norberg made what her Swiss counterpart, Mirjam Ott, called "a perfect shot," taking out two Swiss stones and staying in the house for the winning point.

It was nice to see a good, quality performance. I mean by the Swiss.

It was better to see the Swedes nail it in the clutch.

Previous column: Doping scandal, hockey, Katarina Witt

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