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Silverware for Sasha, as usual

Arakawa strikes gold after favorites fumble

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Arakawa is the first Japanese woman to win Olympic gold.

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Winter Olympics
Figure skating
Shizura Arakawa
Sasha Cohen

TORINO, Italy (CNN) -- Sasha Cohen thought she had blown it.

After falling twice in the opening minute of her free skate program, the American told her coach she did not think she would finish in the medals at all, let alone with the gold she had been aiming for.

She went backstage, took off her skates and changed out of her dress, thinking she had no need to remain in costume.

By the end of the night, Japan's Shizuka Arakawa was beaming after winning the gold with a mesmerizing display and Russia's Irina Slutskaya was nursing a bronze after an underwhelming performance.

And Cohen was rushing back to the lockers to throw her dress and skates back on so that she could accept the silver. Another silver.

Cohen has made a habit of finishing second. She has never won a major international tournament and only finished first in the U.S. nationals in the absence of Michelle Kwan.

She had been in a strong position to win gold at the 2004 world championships, only to see Arakawa surge past her. She had also been in first place in Torino heading into the free skate.

But 20 seconds into her routine, set to Romeo and Juliet, she stumbled on the landing of her opening triple lutz. She fell again on her next jump. And as she reached out with both hands to steady herself against the ice, the gold medal slipped from her grasp.

"I'm not really angry, I'm kind of on a letdown," she said afterwards. "I'll kind of dwell, and everything will sink in.

"It was very difficult to come back after the first two falls, especially because the next one up (triple loop) was not an easy jump ... but I was able to believe when everything looked dark and gray."

But if she was disappointed with the result, she was also philosophical about her overall achievement.

"Ultimately, it's four minutes of one day in my life. I look back on the past four years and I've had such an incredible journey.

"I've grown so much as a person and as an athlete. I've become stronger and tougher and I have to be proud of all those things and take that with me into whatever else I choose to do."

As the scores were flashed after Arakawa's spellbinding effort, the 24-year-old let slip a rare show of emotion, allowing herself a huge smile as she pumped her fists in celebration.

It was Japan's first figure skating gold medal and their first of any kind -- in any sport -- at Torino. Arakawa is also the first Japanese woman to win Olympic gold.

"I never expected that I would be the first one to win a medal for Japan, so I didn't feel that pressure. But I'm very happy that I am the one who won it," she said.

She sang every word as the Japanese national anthem was played at the medal ceremony, then stayed on the ice for half an hour, draped in her flag and thanking her supporters.

'It was beautiful'

In Japan, public broadcaster NHK delayed their morning news to telecast the event. Crowds gathered around giant screens or huddled in front of television sets to watch Arakawa rescue the country from what would have been its worst Olympic performance -- in terms of the medal count -- in 30 years.

"It was beautiful. I felt moved as I watched," one woman among a crowd of 100 watching at a Tokyo hotel said. It was soon announced Arakawa would receive an honorary award from her home prefecture.

"I still can't believe it. I didn't think that I could win a medal and just felt that it would be good if I could enjoy the Olympics," Arakawa told NHK.

"Tomorrow, the day after, as the days go by I think I will start realizing that it is reality," she said.

And yet it could so easily never have been.

Arakawa had slipped to ninth in the world championships of 2005, having won the title in 2004. She was confused and wondering if her best was behind her.

"I wanted to keep going until I felt satisfied with my skating. I'm very glad now that I did choose to continue, and grateful to those who helped me."

For Slutskaya, the favorite before the competition began, there was little comfort in finishing third.

The 27-year-old Russian lacked any of the spark necessary to impress the judges enough to take home the gold and looked spent with one minute still remaining in her routine.

She said she was happy with the bronze, but her demeanor on the podium suggested otherwise. No smile, no waving to the crowd, she looked as if the medal around her neck was made of lead and she had just flunked Alchemy 101.

Still she tried to find the bright side. "There are some girls who came and competed and got 18th and 20th places. I'm happy I have something," she said.

By contrast, the woman who finished 23rd was gushing. Italy's Silvia Fontana had come out of retirement to skate in front of her home crowd. And while she was never in the medal hunt -- indeed, she barely made the cut for the free skate at all -- she said she loved every second of her time in the spotlight.

"It was my Olympic moment, that's all I can say. If you have a challenge with yourself and you don't meet that challenge, the only failure is when you don't try."

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