Kimmie Meissner

Kimmie Meissner, executing a jump during her short program yesterday, appears to have benefited from the coaching change she made in January. (Getty Images / March 19, 2008)

When her short program was over yesterday, Kimmie Meissner smiled the smile of a champion, a smile few had seen in more than a year.

It didn't matter that the judges placed her ninth at the World Figure Skating Championships or that instead of a triple-triple jump combination she performed a triple-double.

When the music stopped and the cheers began, Meissner was upright and happy and just seven points behind the leader, Carolina Kostner of Italy. With every step, with every spin, with every spiral, the former world and U.S. champion showed glimpses of her old self and more.

The monkey that had been riding on her shoulder and whispering doubts in her ear was gone.

"I was happy, because it was the best that I could do and I did it," said Meissner, who skated last of the 53 competitors and scored 57.25. "It just feels great to come back after hard performances and do something well."

Japan's Mao Asada, last year's silver medalist, was in second place with a score of 64.10 points, just .18 behind Kostner, and teammate Yukari Nakano was in third, with 61.10. Meissner's teammates - competing at their first worlds - finished just behind her. Bebe Liang was 10th and Ashley Wagner 11th.

The top 24 women will skate their long programs today. Meissner said she will "do a triple-triple [jump], no matter what."

That she is behind Kostner "doesn't matter to me at all," Meissner said. "I did not care. I was just so happy that it was something I could feel proud of."

Over the span of a year, Meissner lost her world and national titles and, more importantly, her confidence. She fell three times at the Grand Prix final in December and again at nationals, where she finished seventh, in January.

After some soul searching, she parted with longtime coach Pam Gregory and moved to Florida to work with Richard Callaghan, who has guided skaters to Olympic, world and national gold medals. Six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, who has spent his whole career with Callaghan, took a break from the Smucker's Stars on Ice tour to work with her for three days.

"I just tried to do what I did in practice. I had a good warm-up, and I was feeling really good," Meissner said.

The 18-year-old from Bel Air smiled broadly and made eye contact with judges and fans throughout her program. Although she scaled back a planned triple-triple combination jump to a triple-double, Meissner skated a solid program to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins." She beamed as her performance ended, pumping her fist once and saying an emphatic "Yes." Callaghan smiled and hugged her as she came off the ice.

"It was nice to go last," Meissner said. "You know right away where you are and also you can close the show, and it feels good to do that."

Meissner and Callaghan said they decided to play it safe by substituting the triple-double.

"We decided to do a smart program. I knew I could do a clean program that way, and I didn't want to worry about downgrades," she said.

The change of scenery and coaches appears to have done her a world of good.

"There's been a lot of positive reinforcement and just, you know, feeling good every day," Meissner said. "I got to the practice rink just wanting to skate and not feeling like I had to be perfect."

Wagner, who earned 51.49 points for her program skating to music from "Henry the Eighth," practically bubbled off the ice and into her interview.

The 16-year-old from Northern Virginia said she was "insanely nervous" and thrilled at the same time.

"I've come a long way in a year," said Wagner, who had competed in just two events at the senior international level until yesterday.

Liang celebrated her 20th birthday a week early with a solid program skated to the "Sorcerer's Apprentice," good for a score of 52.81, a little more than a point off her season's best.

Callaghan said he isn't concerned so much about the final standings today as he is using this competition as a building block for Meissner.

"I believe [at] this competition she needs to go through the whole event and skate very happy for herself," he said. "Whatever the results are, as long as she leaves here happy, she needs to go back and really train hard and up the ante a bit."

• Pairs // Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany won the title, beating China's Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao by more than five points. Canada's Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison earned the bronze.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com