Sasha Cohen always has looked like a delicate statuette, with a complexion pale as translucent bone china and 90 pounds stretched across her 5-foot body.
Wednesday, after four days of battling the flu, Cohen looked wan and frail after she practiced for the women's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
"Bad timing," Cohen said of her illness, which kept her off the ice three days.
The illness isn't the only unfortunately timed episode for Cohen this week.
The absence of injured defending champion Michelle Kwan has made Cohen the overwhelming favorite in her event, which begins with tonight's short program. It also makes Cohen's anticipated triumph anticlimactic.
"When I do win a national title, it would definitely mean a lot more if (Kwan) is there," Cohen said last fall.
At the U.S. Olympic Committee's autumn media day in Colorado Springs, Cohen sat below a huge poster of Kwan. The nine-time U.S. champion's presence has loomed over Cohen's entire career.
Cohen has been second to Kwan four times at the nationals, twice losing despite leading after the short program. With that record, it is easy to forget that Cohen, with two silver medals, has beaten Kwan at the past two world championships.
"It is a little empty without her here but I have my own things to worry about," Cohen said Wednesday.
Cohen's illness also could affect Kwan's petition to be given one of the three women's singles spots on the 2006 Olympic team.
Only the U.S. champion is guaranteed an Olympic spot. If the flu-weakened Cohen slips below second place, it will be harder for U.S. figure skating officials to justify having Kwan replace the No. 2 finisher. Under the selection criteria in place, Cohen seems a lock to make the Olympic team no matter where she finishes after Saturday's free skate final.
"It feels a little weird without Michelle," the 21-year-old Cohen said. "Just me and all these little girls."
The latter group includes Kimmie Meissner, 16, last year's U.S. bronze medalist; Emily Hughes, 16, younger sister of Olympic champion Sarah and 2005 world junior championships bronze medalist; Bebe Liang, 17, who finished sixth at nationals at 12 but has improved only one place since; and Alissa Czisny, 18, who made this year's Grand Prix Final.
"Michelle has done so much for the sport and been a champion so many years, I'm guessing they will give her a spot on the Olympic team," Czisny said Wednesday. "It's important for the rest of us just to focus on our own skating."
No other skater at this championship ever has come close to beating Cohen. Yet her failure to capitalize on chances to win U.S. titles in 2000 and 2004, the world title in 2004 and an Olympic medal in 2002 have left Cohen with a reputation as a skater who beats herself.
"It's when you don't win that you learn things about yourself," Cohen said. "Everything I have gone through has made me who I am today."
Cohen has been searching for that identity since finishing fourth at the 2002 Winter Olympics. She made three coaching changes, and those peregrinations led her family to uproot itself twice, going from Orange County, Calif., to New York in 2002 and then returning to California a year ago.
She is back with John Nicks, the coach who brought her to the elite level. Nicks, 76, who combines an avuncular side with a rapier wit, previously had a tempestuous relationship with the strong-willed Cohen.
"When I came back to Mr. Nicks, he said a skater who is older and more mature should have more input and responsibility for her skating," Cohen said. "I feel I set my game plan and goals. He is always the one who is telling me to slow down a little bit."
Riding a bus to Cohen's Wednesday morning practice at the Savvis Center, Nicks said his attempts to get the skater to lighten up usually are in vain.
"Sasha is so intense," Nicks said. "She thinks of little else besides skating and competition."
For all that, Cohen seems more comfortable in her own skin. Prone in the past to sidestep questions about her impact as one of the few Jewish U.S. Olympians, Cohen discussed her heritage with a mix of humor and matter-of-factness last fall.
"I celebrate Hanukkah," Cohen said. "Anything with gifts is good."
Cohen explained that her Jewish experience was limited because her mother, Galina, a Ukrainian emigre, was not allowed to practice religion during her childhood in the Soviet Union.
"I wasn't raised going to synagogue," Cohen said. "My mother wasn't brought up with that, so I wasn't brought up with it."
One of Cohen's grandparents was a gymnast who once performed for Stalin. Dictators are known to be even tougher judges than the ones who evaluate Cohen on the ice.
The ongoing criticism of Cohen's skating has focused on her inability to do back-to-back "clean," or error-free, programs in competition. In no national or international competition has she completed both short and long programs as planned.
"Why that happens is the $1 million question," Nicks said. "Nobody doubts she has the talent to do it sooner or later."
Cohen thought she was ready for such performances this season, until a hip injury forced her to withdraw from the Skate America Grand Prix event. She returned a month later to finish second to Japanese phenom Mao Asada at the Paris Grand Prix event.
"I'm preparing physically much harder, and I'm much more prepared," Cohen said last week. "As a result, I am more confident and more comfortable with what I have to do out there."
Then Kwan withdrew, and Cohen got the flu. It is hard to know which made her feel worse.