February 23, 2006 08:00 AM

Sasha Cohen’s routine on Wednesday – one day before Thursday’s go for the gold – is not what most people expected. The U.S. champion decided to skip both of her practices, deciding rest was a better idea.

“It’s definitely going to be tough for everyone to do great longs with all of the pressure,” the 21-year-old figure skater said after winning the free skate short program Tuesday night. “I’m going to believe in myself and expect the best.”

Though Cohen edged two-time world champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia in the short program, the gold medal is hardly a done deal. Slutskaya trails by only .03 points, and former world champion Shizuka Arakawa is behind by .71.

Cohen’s reputation is that of being as headstrong as she is talented – and of often coming up short. She went to the 2003 national championships as the strongest skater in the world, only to finish third after doing only five clean triple jumps and falling once. She won the short program at the 2004 nationals, but botched two jumps in the free and finished second.

She also won the short program at the 2004 worlds, but a couple of shaky landings and a two-footed triple salchow spoiled her shot at gold. At the Salt Lake City Olympics, Cohen was in third after the short program but dropped to fourth – off the medals podium – with a sloppy free skate.

Of her past failures, Cohen says: “I was a different person, a different athlete,” reports the Associated Press. “I’ve learned and matured so much and learned how to handle the nerves a bit better since then. I’ve just evolved.”

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