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Nice on ice

Sun reporter

She's not supposed to be here.

Kimmie Meissner's Olympic plan called for a showdown with the world's best figure skaters at the 2010 Winter Games.

Tear up the blueprint. She's ready now.

Like an escalator on full power, Meissner rose through the competition at each age level, stopping to win a title before surging past her peers. On Tuesday, she'll take the ice with skating's elite women, four years ahead of schedule.

It is, she says, "the cherry on top" of a short but sparkling career.

"I was just focusing on the next Olympics," she says, a wide grin spreading across her face. "What I really want to do is to skate across the [Olympic] logo on the ice. Then it will hit me."

Make no mistake, Meissner is no fluke.

After placing third at the national championships last year, she returned last month and secured a place on the U.S. team by finishing second to Sasha Cohen.

And in Olympic figure skating, where often the front-runners stumble and the winner comes from nowhere, Meissner has the right "Who, me?" attitude and sense of proportion that comes from three hard-to-impress brothers and parents who refuse to believe that skating is everything.

In a world of sequins and melodrama and divas, Meissner is just a kid who argues with her father about which DVD to watch, can text-message in her sleep and frets if she has to speak in front of classmates.

At 16, she is the youngest of four, the only girl and the only one still living at home.

Brother Nate, 27, is a Baltimore firefighter and paramedic; Adam, 24, is a mortgage company broker; and Luke, 20, is a Towson University student. All three played hockey.

"In our family, she's not the center of attention," says their mother, Judy Meissner. "The others were good at what they did. They just didn't get the attention she has."

Her brothers keep her grounded. It wasn't until last year, when she got a bigger Sports Illustrated photo spread than Michelle Kwan, and NBC's Katie Couric came calling, that they realized that their kid sister was exceptional.

The teasing has stopped, Meissner says with a smirk of satisfaction and her Tickle-Me-Elmo giggle. She skates better than her brothers do now, and because of her, they've had to get passports.

"She's an incredibly well-rounded kid. I've tried to give her a separate life outside skating," says Judy Meissner. "We've always made skating a privilege you earn."

Everyone agrees Meissner is addicted to her sport. But only in the nicest possible way.

"The ice rink is Kimmie's playground. A competition is like Disney World," says Pam Gregory, her coach. "She loves being out there, loves practice, loves competing. Our No. 1 rule is to have fun."

Meissner rises each morning at her Bel Air home before the sun comes up, eats breakfast and heads off to Fallston High School for five periods of classes.

At lunchtime, she jumps in her mother's SUV for an hour-long ride to the University of Delaware rink for six hours of practice.

She does homework on the way back, has dinner and dives in for more homework.

"I miss out on after-school activities, like school dances, but this is what I choose to do," Meissner says. "I haven't really thought about boyfriends."

Or a driver's license. Although she's old enough to be behind the wheel, skating has priority over a learner's permit.

"There's time for those things," she says. "This is a unique. This is an awesome experience."

"It's her decision, her sacrifice," says Judy Meissner. "If she came to us and said she was quitting tomorrow, it would be over."

But it's also a sacrifice for the family.

With few exceptions, it's Judy Meissner who acts as chauffeur. Family vacations are often scheduled around competitions. And unlike skaters who have managers to arrange interviews and appearances, Kimmie has Agent Mom, who also travels to all competitions.

Dr. Paul Meissner, a Cockeysville podiatrist, jokes that his job on Team Meissner is "to sign those rectangular pieces of paper that pay for things."

He plays hockey in a men's league, and Judy Meissner says her husband and daughter "share the language of sports."

At the University of Delaware rink, she blends in, sharing gossip and cherry string licorice with other skaters. For a more substantial meal, she'll bet Shaun Rogers, a senior men's skater from Millersville, a slice of pizza on who can snap off a better jump.

Ron Ludington, who runs the Delaware program and has coached 10 Olympic skaters, says Meissner is a role model for his younger athletes.

"She's the best thing to ever hit this place. She has such a positive attitude, and it rubs off on the other girls. She's bubbly. When she takes the falls, she's still smiling," says Ludington, a 1960 Olympic bronze medalist in pairs.

The skater blushes at the praise, and brushes off the "Super Girl" mantle.

"I have my days," she says. "Mostly, I try to stay off my butt."

Meissner was just a tyke when her brothers laced her into a pair of hockey skates stuffed with socks and took her out in the backyard, which was glazed over after an ice storm.

At age 6, she began taking public lessons at the Baltimore Figure Skating Club, where she was just one of the gaggle of tiny girls wobbling around the ice. Meissner also played soccer and took dance, which she found similar to skating.

In the end, she narrowed her focus to skating.

"I wasn't that great at soccer. I was better at this," she says.

Judy Meissner says her daughter's desire to be on the ice was insatiable. "No matter how often we went, it was never enough."

But even with desire and endless practices, Meissner was stuck deep in the pack. She finished 16th in the 2000 Junior Nationals and again in 2001. Her parents turned to Gregory, who had been coaching Meissner in skating strokes, and put their daughter's career in her hands.

The skater and coach had a somewhat prickly relationship. Gregory drilled the basics. Meissner hated the drudgery.

Then, something clicked.

"Pam is one of the most gifted coaches in the country," says Ludington. "You put these two together and it's quite a combination. They trust each other and respect each other."

In 2003, she won the novice division at the U.S. Championships. The next year, it was the junior division and a silver medal at the Junior World Championships.

One thing skater and coach agree on is that the jump that made Meissner famous will have to wait until the 2010 Winter Games.

The triple axel, a 3 1/2 -revolution jump performed by only one other U.S. woman and several international skaters, was the talk of last year's national championships.

In a go-for-broke move, Meissner added it to her long program and moved from fourth place to third.

But consistency was fleeting. She could not land one at the Junior World Championships several weeks later, and by the time she arrived at this year's nationals, it was on the shelf.

In its place are several combination jumps that carry almost as much weight with the judges as the triple axel.

Gregory sees similarities between Meissner and Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, who won Olympic gold as teenagers.

"They are very disciplined," she said. "I've seen plenty of talent similar to Kimmie at 12 or 14, but most of them, when they become teens, they want more. It's probably normal to want more.

"It takes a different bean to be in such love with your sport and sacrifice what you need to. She has a similar [work] ethic to them."

And, like Lipinski and Hughes, she loves the spotlight.

"I listen to the crowds," Meissner says. "I love it when the crowds are really behind me. The louder they scream, the louder they are, the better. There are parts where the crowd should be loud, and I wait for it."

So far, she has avoided a case of Olympic nerves. Pressure, she says, is for others.

"I feel this competition is, believe it or not, the same as any other competition. The skaters are pretty much all the same. When you're here, you should just be trying to have a blast and not worry too much," Meissner says.

She's just a little superstitious. Putting her skates on, it's left, then right. Pulling them off, it's right, then left. She likes even numbers, including when it comes down to pencils. It's No. 2s all the way.

Around her neck, she wears seven tiny charms: a skater, a skate blade, a heart, a cross, a pendant from Notre Dame Cathedral, a Venetian gondola and a mother-daughter charm (her mother wears an identical charm).

She's still looking for the perfect addition from this trip.

Perhaps something of Olympic caliber.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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