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baltimoresun.com

Event brings more than gold

Tuneup prepares Meissner, Lysacek for upcoming worlds

By Candus Thomson

Sun reporter

February 12, 2007

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.

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So what was the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships worth to the top U.S. man and woman?

At first glance, $15,000 each for winners Kimmie Meissner and Evan Lysacek.

But the competition with all the luster of a parking-lot penny may end up being worth its weight in gold by the end of the skating season. Coming just two weeks after their gold-medal performances at the U.S. championships and a little more than a month before the world championships, Four Continents became a test of Meissner's and Lysacek's mettle and ability to raise their games on short notice.

The competition also forced them to deal with the thin air of this Rocky Mountain city, not a big deal in the short program, but definitely a physical and psychological barrier in the long program.

Athletes not up to the challenge faltered. Early on, the casualty list looked like it would include Meissner and Lysacek.

Lysacek acknowledged his struggle was "a sort of a marathon between nationals and now, emotionally and physically," in which he had to overcome almost an 11-point deficit after the short program to beat Canadian champion Jeffrey Buttle and Colorado skater and crowd favorite Jeremy Abbott.

But it also gave him a chance to prove the quad toe loop he landed at nationals wasn't a one-shot wonder.

"I didn't come here to win," he admitted. "I came here to train the quad for worlds."

Lysacek hit the daily double Friday, taking the gold medal and hitting the four-revolution jump. The quad wasn't as clean as the one that helped earn him the U.S. title, but he overcame its imperfections to post an international personal-best score of 226.27.

For Meissner, Four Continents was a confidence booster. The margin of victory at nationals was less than a point, and training time since then had been shortened by the kind of perks that come with the title: endorsements and personal appearances.

She ended up having less than a full week of training, and then missed her flight and arrived just a day before competition began.

The short turnaround became evident almost immediately. Just moments into her short program, Meissner had a monumental technical meltdown, misfiring on two jumps and a layback spin. The normally bubbly Meissner gave short answers at a post-competition news conference and looked bewildered and embarrassed.

If anything, the missed opportunity was a blessing, requiring the 17-year-old from Bel Air to refocus and rely on the intense physical training that sets her apart from most of her competitors. Subsequent practices showed an intensity that had been missing, and Meissner began hitting the most difficult jump for women - the triple axel - on a regular basis, fueling speculation that she might add it to her long program Saturday.

It turns out, she didn't need it. Meissner went from sixth place and four points down to No. 1 and six points up.

"It was hard because I didn't get to train as much as I'd liked to, but I think I caught up now," she said. "Going into worlds, it was a good practice."

Coach Pam Gregory, who had concerns after nationals, seemed upbeat afterward.

"At nationals, she had a lot of downgraded spins and spirals. Those were back up here where they're supposed to be," Gregory said. "Actually, she still trains a little bit better than what she did here, so maybe we'll see that at worlds."

Lysacek also came away from Four Continents feeling upbeat.

"The program is technically so grueling, it's probably going to rival anybody else in the world," he said. "Now that I'm confident with the quad and confident with the other jumps, it's going to be all about the artistry."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com