She put her hand down to steady herself and avoid an automatic one-point deduction and then performed a workmanlike long program that was good enough to hold off charges from Emily Hughes and Alissa Czisny.
Although her performance was only the third best, she won on the strength of her first-place short program, skated Thursday. It made her the first woman to earn a U.S. title without winning the long program since 1991, when compulsories were not factored into the score.
Meissner, 17, received a total score of 181.68, less than a point ahead of Hughes (180.86), the sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes. Czisny made one mistake in the middle of an otherwise graceful performance to finish third with a score of 177.74. The three women will go to Tokyo in March for the world championships.
"I wasn't really nervous. I was really excited," said Meissner, barely able to stand still as her legs bounced up and down. "It shocked me a little when I put my hand down, so I was thinking: 'Refocus and get through the rest of the program.'"
Hughes fell on a triple flip for a one-point deduction, which put the gold medal around Meiss- ner's slender neck.
"I am aware," Hughes said of the narrow loss afterward. "And it's going to push me to March."
In a reversal, it was Meissner's short program Thursday that gave her the margin of victory. Her long program, packed with two triple-jump combinations and a three-jump combination - technically the hardest of all competitors - is usually where she shines.
Yesterday, however, she landed five triple jumps, the same number as Hughes.
"It wasn't perfect, but she was under a lot of pressure," said her coach, Pam Gregory. "I was proud of her."
Waiting to warm up with the five other skaters in her group, Meissner did a tiny dance to The Romantics' "What I Like About You." Out on the ice, she fell on a triple toe loop, but smiled when some fans in the upper reaches of the arena yelled, "Kimmie, you're hot!"
Her opening, however, was anything but. After putting her hand down, she left off the triple toe loop on the back end of the combination.
"I forgot about it and just kept going. I knew I had the whole program I could make up the points I missed on that," said Meissner, who won the silver medal last year and the bronze in 2005.
The landing on her next combination - a triple flip-triple toe - was awkward. But then she steadied herself with speed and spins and ended with a flourish, a double axel-double toe-double loop just seconds from the end of the program.
She is the first woman since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992 to earn a national title after winning the world championship, and with Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen pursuing other interests, the national title was up for grabs.
"I'm really excited I'm the leader right now, just because coming into this competition, there was no national champion here," Meissner said. "Now there is."
On Tuesday, Meissner will be in New York to film a national commercial for Subway - an upgrade from the local one that has been airing for a year in Maryland. Then, it's off to the Today show on Wednesday.
Finally Meissner will return to Fallston High School, where she is finishing her senior year.
"I expect when I go back, there will be some talk," said Meissner, who reads the morning announcements scripted by a teacher over the school's public address system.
Then Meissner imagined out loud what it would sound like: "Kimmie Meissner's back in the building today after winning nationals. So make sure if you see her to tell her congratulations ... and by the way, this is Kimmie."
• Note // Evan Lysacek skated the performance of a lifetime, overwhelming three-time champion Johnny Weir to win the men's event. He hit his first jump, a quad-triple combination, and went on from there to finish with 248.88 points. Weir (213.20) was six points behind surprising Ryan Bradley.