As matchups go, this could be the season's grandest of Grand Prix series events, a figure skating competition with crystal ball potential for this year and beyond.
Kimmie Meissner vs. Mao Asada.A dozen women each will have just seven minutes to wow the judges with their athleticism and artistry at Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris, which begins tomorrow. For Meissner and Asada, the expectations go far beyond the $18,000 first-prize check and a spot in the Grand Prix Final next month in Turin, Italy.
Both skaters, along with South Korea's Yu-Na Kim, have their eyes on the world championships in March and the Olympics in 2010.
"The challenge this year is to get back on the podium at [the] world championships, definitely," said Pam Gregory, who has coached Meissner through every step of her novice, junior and senior triumphs. "I think she's up for that challenge."
Each skater has a Grand Prix gold medal this season. Meissner was the 2006 world champion. Japan's Asada was the 2007 runner-up. Each is the reigning champion at home.
Asada, 17, holds the advantage in Grand Prix competition. Since joining the senior international level in 2005, she has earned medals in all six of her Grand Prix events, four of them gold. She also won the Grand Prix Final in 2006.
Meissner has won medals in three of her five events, but Skate America last month was her first win. Her two Grand Prix Final appearances were at the junior level.
The Bel Air resident, 18, says that she is physically stronger than she was last year. Appearing in the Champions on Ice and the Stars on Ice tours in the spring helped her improve her artistry and her ability to play to the audience.
"I want to do a good short [program] in Paris," Meissner said. "I always go out there and fall on my triple lutz. I mean always."
Working in her favor, she said, is that this will mark her third consecutive Paris appearance, which makes it her oval home away from home.
"Yeah, I definitely feel comfortable there," she said, smiling. "And the shopping is great."
Meissner and Asada met in Paris two years ago for the first time in senior competition. Asada ended up atop the podium and Meissner finished a distant fifth. At Skate America last year, Meissner earned the silver medal and Asada finished with the bronze.
Asada has her heart set on going to Turin, the site of the 2006 Olympics, as a step toward the world title.
"Skate Canada was very important for me to get to the Grand Prix Final, so there was a lot of pressure," Asada said after her win.
Both skaters she can land the difficult 3 1/2 -revolution triple axel, but neither has included it in competition this season because the risky jump isn't worth more points than other jump combinations.
"It was important to me to skate a clean program," Asada said after Skate Canada. "I was afraid to mess up the rest of the program if I try the axel. I also was confident that I can win without the triple axel."
Asada's edge has been in artistry, or presentation scores. Her programs are fluid, and her skates barely make a sound as they cut across the ice and touch down after a jump.
But Meissner is improving. Judges gave her the highest presentation score in the long program at Skate America, which helped her beat the reigning world champion, Miki Ando of Japan.
The great equalizer this time could be the judging.
At Skate America, skaters and coaches were taken aback when the technical specialists cracked down on imperfections that they had previously let slide.
Jumps launched on the wrong edge and landed slightly before completing all of the rotations were marked down like a post-holiday sale.
Under the more critical eye, Meissner was given credit for just three clean triple jumps. Ando was downgraded on two of her jumps.
Asada found herself in the penalty box at Skate Canada, where she was downgraded when she under-rotated the second jump in her triple flip-triple loop combination.
The judges also caught her taking off on the inside edge (a "flutz") on the triple lutz instead of the correct and more difficult outside edge.
"We all know what to expect now," Meissner said. "Now we just have to do it."
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