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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – There’s no place Sasha Cohen would rather be than on the ice, especially Olympic ice.

Cohen electrified the crowd with a fabulous short program Tuesday night that lifted her to third place. Another performance like this, and she’ll have a shiny souvenir to bring home from her trip to Salt Lake City.

“To go out there in my Olympic moment and skate clean was really a dream come true for me,” the 17-year-old said, her eyes still bright from the thrill.

Fellow American Michelle Kwan won the short program, and Sarah Hughes was fourth. The free skate, worth two-thirds of the final score, is Thursday night.

From the moment Cohen stepped on the ice, she looked as if she owned the place. There were no nerves, no butterflies, no rookie jitters.

Not even the raucous response from the pro-U.S. crowd could shake her. She oozed confidence and fearlessness.

“I feel in complete control on the ice,” she said. “That’s where I can do what I love. When I’m off the ice, WHOO! Once I’m out there, I really enjoy it.”

And it showed. Her jumps were solid, and she had more speed than most of the top skaters. But it was her beauty and presence that really set her apart. Coach John Nicks has said it’s impossible to put her in an ugly position, that she even falls gracefully.

He’s right. Her spirals were exquisite, particularly the Charlotte spiral, where she virtually glides in the splits, her nose touching her shin. While other skaters simply land their jumps, she finishes them with the grace of a ballerina.

Perhaps even a champion. Her marks left her behind only Kwan and Russia’s Irina Slutskaya, and the scores might have been a little higher if she hadn’t skated sixth.

Still, it’s pretty good for someone who missed much of last season with a back injury. She couldn’t compete at nationals, and still hasn’t skated at a world championship.

It’s usually tough for someone with that little experience to break into the leaders’ club at the Olympics, but the headstrong teen-ager has always done things her own way.

Hughes has the resume Cohen lacks, but it didn’t help her Tuesday night. Skating fifth, the 16-year-old was clearly nervous and needed a few extra seconds to compose herself after a loud ovation from the crowd.

“If I started right away, it would have thrown me off a little,” Hughes said. “So I needed to refocus.”

The extra time didn’t help much. She was much slower than usual, and didn’t have her normal spark. She hit every element, although her triple lutz-double toe loop combination was technically flawed and she barely held the landing of her triple flip.

But midway through the 2-minute, 40-second program, she was done with her jumps and smiling broadly. When she finished the program, she clapped her hands and pumped her fists, then skated off the ice and into a big hug from coach Robin Wagner.

“It was certainly a strong skate,” Wagner said. “I was proud of her for going out there at the Olympic Games and looking fairly secure.”

Hughes is going to have to do more than that if she wants to match or better the bronze medal she won at the world championships last spring. But Hughes insists she’s not worrying about a medal.

She’s here to have fun, she says, just as bronze medalist Timothy Goebel did.

“Tim and I had lunch together yesterday and he just told me, ‘You’re prepared, don’t worry,’” she said. “It’s our first Olympics. I’m still young and I have time.

“He said, ‘Don’t think this is the Olympics. Just go out, enjoy it and have fun.’”

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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