November 4, 2019

Mental models

#78 – Sasha Cohen: The price of achievement, and redefining success

"You can be a healthy, functioning human being, or you can be the best in the world at something, but you can't be both." — Sasha Cohen

Read Time 26 minutes

In this episode, Sasha Cohen, former US Olympic figure skater, discusses the most challenging things about life as an Olympian—the unfathomable pressures, enormous expectations, years of sacrifice, and your entire life’s work culminating in just a few minutes on the world stage which, once over, leads to a loss of identity resulting in many former Olympians suffering with depression. We begin by talking about everything that led up to her unforgettable moment from the 2006 Olympics, and how she handled herself so beautifully in the face of disaster. Most importantly, we talk about post-skating life when she shares many insights such as the downside of constantly striving for a moment, the hollowness of achievement, and the importance of redefining our definition of success.


We discuss:

  • Sasha’s mindset going into the 2006 Olympics as the favorite [6:30];
  • Figure skating basics, scoring, short program vs. long program, etc. [13:40];
  • Sasha’s unforgettable performance at the 2006 Olympics [18:10];
  • Win, lose, or draw, why many Olympians suffer from a loss of identity [32:30];
  • Dealing with the disappointment of “losing the gold” [40:30];
  • The tiny window of opportunity for Olympians, and the overwhelming pressure to meet expectations [49:30];
  • Sasha’s unique childhood, finding figure skating, and channeling her hyperactive personality into becoming an amazing skater [1:01:30];
  • The consequences of extreme training at a young age, and trying to control the uncontrollable [1:10:00];
  • What is driving extreme athletes and Olympians to be the best? [1:18:30];
  • Why many former Olympians and athletes struggle with depression [1:25:00];
  • Refining success—How Sasha overcame her own loss of identity [1:32:30];
  • What advice would Sasha give her 15-year-old self? [1:40:45];
  • Lessons we can learn from watching the rapid downfall of many former Olympians [1:45:00];
  • Advice for people who are tying their identity to being “successful” or striving to be “the best” [1:56:00];
  • Life lessons Sasha wants to apply to being a mother to her baby boy she is expecting [2:05:00]; and
  • More.


Before beginning this podcast episode, take a moment to watch Sasha’s long program performance at the 2006 Olympic games:


Sasha’s mindset going into the 2006 Olympics as the favorite [6:30]

  • Fast forwarding to age 21
  • Sasha is the favorite at the 2006 Olympics
  • She had a feeling this might be her last games so she was feeling the pressure
  • She also felt less prepared mentally and physically that she would like
  • She has some unfortunate injuries that occurred in the last few months leading up to the games
  • These few minutes you have to fulfill a lifelong dream is just immense pressure
  • In contrast, in the 2002 Olympics (her first games) she was just 17 she was just amazed she made the Olympics and there was no pressure to win (she got fourth place)

“And I think something that I’ve learned a lot about myself since then is that we can’t control everything. And as athletes we think we can, that we can control and prevent any injury that might arise or any equipment problems. And, and it’s very hard to admit to yourself that you can’t control everything cause that’s what you’ve spent your whole life trying to do.”

Putting on a brave face

  • Athletes can’t show weakness, says Sasha
  • Because others will smell blood in the water and come for you

“And so you’re always putting on this brave face, and it’s kind of a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’, because if you show fear you give others confidence and you undermine yourself.”


Figure skating basics, scoring, short program vs. long program, etc. [13:40]

The short program

  • usually 2 minutes and 50 seconds
  • There’s three jumping passes
  • there’s a footwork sequence
  • A spiral sequence
  • And 3 three spins

Long program 

  • 4 min 10 sec
  • 8 jumping passes and you could do jumps in combination 
  • Three to four spins 
  • A footwork sequence and a spiral sequence as well
  • More flexibility in terms of if you do a combination or you don’t do a combination
  • And it’s all about trying to aggregate more and more points


  • ~9 judges with a backup
  • They take your short program and long program together to come up with your final score
  • Top score among skaters wins

Was Sasha’s strength more on the short program or the long program or how do these differ?

  • Less margin of error in short program (one mistake and you lose)
  • But long program offers more opportunity to take risks (since it’s longer)
  • Sasha liked short program more (more “fiery” and less pressure)
  • More endurance mentally and physically in long program

“For some people they see it as more pressure because you can’t make a mistake and in some ways it’s less pressure because it doesn’t count for as much as the long and it’s just, it’s everyone kind of getting initiated and seeing where you rank.”


Sasha’s unforgettable performance at the 2006 Olympics [18:10]

  • Coming out of the short program, Sasha was in first place, despite feeling like she didn’t do her best
  • She was thrilled, she couldn’t believe it: “I hadn’t done a clean short program in weeks.
  • She then had a day off before her long program skate
  • She actually strained her leg during her short program so she didn’t practice at all leading up to the long program (when is unusual) 
  • This added to her anxiety about feeling unprepared
  • On her decision to not practice: “You always second guess everything and in hindsight, but considering where I was and how injured I was, the time it, it did seem like the best decision because at a certain point you’ve done everything so many times that it’s how you feel physically, which really informs how you feel mentally in the moment that you step out to perform.

The infamous long program skate by Sasha in 2006

  • In the 5 minute warm up before her long program, she fell on jumps that she usually nailed

{end of show notes preview}

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Sasha Cohen

Sasha is an American figure skater. She is the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, a three-time World Championship medalist, the 2003 Grand Prix Final Champion, and the 2006 U.S. Champion. She is known for her artistry, flexibility and body lines, and musical interpretation. As of 2019, Cohen is the last American woman to medal individually in figure skating at the Olympics. []

Twitter: @SashaCohenNYC

Instagram: @SashaCohenNYC


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  1. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about this podcast. It really blew my mind and made me take a second look at the things I value in life and why.

  2. I consider myself a pretty seasoned figure skating spectator, considering I have many years under my belt. I have watched and learned and followed all the best skaters since the 60s on. Haha there’s a clue of my gender age. There are very few and far between skaters that in my opinion have it all.
    That will compel me to watch performances over and over and often times years later. I am glad you chose Sasha Cohen to interview and give us a small glimpse of what the life of a truly gifted skater and human she is. My daughter also attended Columbia University and was heavily concentrated on the arts before attending. I know somewhat the pressures and the drive these athletes have and must possess to reach goals we can only dream possible. There comes around in life artists/athletes as talented as her, very very rarely. If I could manufacture the perfect skater in every aspect, it would be Sasha. She did change figure skating In a way no other skater has and maybe will ever. Just listen to the legends commentate during a program, any program in the past that she has skated and you’ll hear just how special she truly was/is. I continue to watch figure skating as passionately as ever but maybe in hopes to witness such a tremendous talent as she had when competing. She inspires me today- as I envy that spirit that lets her accomplish all she sets her mind to. She is a standout champion and will never fade in my or my families memory.
    Thanks again for a great interview. ~Joan from Boston

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