Cohen short and sweet

The iron grip on the figure-skating world is loosening.

The Russians were expected to pick up a fourth gold in these Olympics, but American Sasha Cohen has made a grab for the most precious medal, edging past Irina Slutskaya of Russia by 0.03 of a point to sit atop the standings after the women's short program.

"I've trained my whole life for this and to keep it together and skate well, it's wonderful," said Cohen, 21.

Cohen, who finished second to Slutskaya, 27, at the 2005 worlds, was given higher marks for her program components and artistry. Slutskaya was tops for technique.

"I'm just a little bit upset about the second score (program), because I used to get a better score than (in technique), but today it was the opposite," Slutskaya said.

Canadians Joannie Rochette and Mira Leung are well down the standings after the short program.

Rochette, 20, of Ile Dupas, Que., scored 55.85 points and is ninth, while Leung is 14th with 50.61 points, a personal best.

Leung, 16, said she is impressed with her improvement since last autumn and is glad to be able to show the world.

"Other than the Canadian judges, not a lot of people have been able to see" the improvement, said the Vancouver native, who's in only her second season with the national team.

Shizuka Arakawa of Japan is third with 66.02 points.

American Emily Hughes, the 17-year-old sister of Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, and replacement for Michelle Kwan (who pulled out a week and a half before the competition) finished seventh with 57.08 points.

"I have no expectations," Hughes said. "This is my first big senior international."

Cohen's make-it-look-easy style, speedy spins and more classic approach worked over Slutskaya's verve and energy.

In the jumps category, each did a triple lutz-double toe loop, triple flip and double axel.

It should be a great skate-down tomorrow when the free program is performed.

"It's a very strong competition. I'm going to take one day at a time and do the same thing as I did (yesterday)."

Slutskaya, a 2002 Olympic silver medallist, set a record when she won her seventh European title in January. German Katarina Witt and Sonja Henie of Norway each had six championships.

Cohen, a native of Westwood, Calf., just missed the podium in Salt Lake City, placing fourth.

She didn't like being the last skater, performing at 11:15 p.m. local time. Her coach decided she should skip her morning practice in order to rest. The strategy paid off.

"Sasha is not able to sleep in the afternoon like other skaters can. We decided not to come to (the) practice . . . to keep her fresh for the evening."

Slutskaya hopes to continue the golden Games for the Russians, who have won three of the four championships.

She said she is mentally and physically ready for the challenge: "Somewhere in your mind you understand that you are at the Olympics and you feel it."

Winning the pairs title were Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin. The ice dancing crown went to Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov. Evgeni Plushenko won the men's championship.