The newest member of Kimmie Meissner's coaching team is a free spirit who cheerfully concedes that he knows nothing of figure skating, travels the country in a clunker Jeep with a bungee-corded tarp for a roof and 260,000 on the odometer, and keeps his clothes in a waterproof plastic box.
Meet Gyula Pandi, at age 64, one part cheerleader, one part nag, one part choreographer.
With the Winter Olympics eight months away, the former performer and teacher with the Hungarian Ballet Company is on board to help Meissner prepare for competition in the areas where judges have often downgraded her.
"Tilt your head. Listen to the music," he commands before the skater begins her long program. "Stand up straighter."
"Don't bite your lips," he shouts over the music. "Smile, smile."
Like many teenage skaters, Meissner has struggled with a body still finding its center of gravity and an emotional well that is not yet full. Long limbs that should embrace an audience and enchant judges have appeared somewhat stiff and mechanical. Music meant to touch the soul has seemed to miss the mark. Eye contact - something Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen made into an art form - remains a work in progress.
"I've always been told that I'm too athletic and that I need to be more graceful and that I have a hard time expressing my emotions," Meissner, 19, said. "I thought, 'I'll find someone who can help me with that.' "
Peggy Fleming, Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion, knew Pandi through a good friend and suggested the mentorship.
"Young skaters have to think outside the box," Fleming said. "I thought Gyula might help, but it all depends on the chemistry and you don't know until you try it."
With his lack of skating background, the resident of Winston-Salem, N.C., was initially a little skeptical. But the two hit it off when they worked together for a week last year before the start of the skating season. This year, he's starting much earlier.
"This is so different," Pandi said, standing near the rink at Ice World in Abingdon, where Meissner is working out. "It's art and entertainment and sport all in one. That is asking a lot."
That's not to say he doesn't ask.
"That was beautiful," he hollers after Meissner executes a triple-jump combination that ends with an artistic sweep of her hands. "Now, one more time so we know it wasn't an accident - and with a smile."
Smiling has been a missing component from Meissner's on-ice makeup since a flurry of success from 2005 to 2007 was followed by a serious decline. The skater from Bel Air went to the 2006 Olympics as the runner-up at the U.S. championships. Her sixth-place finish in Turin was followed by a surprising world title. In 2007, she added the national title.
But then she lost both her world title and her national title, the latter in shocking fashion when she fell three times during her long program. She switched coaches and moved to Florida to train. Last season, she finished eighth at both Grand Prix events and then was forced to withdraw with a hip injury from January's U.S. championships.
"It was a rough couple of years for me," Meissner said, shaking her head. "I don't know if I'd wipe it out completely. I'd rather keep the things that I learned."
Still, she sees a bright side. The International Skating Union awarded her two Grand Prix assignments - in Moscow and Nagano, Japan - this fall. The homebody who can't imagine a better place to live than Maryland is more settled in Florida and has made friends. Longtime choreographer Lori Nichol revamped last year's short program and designed a long-program routine to the chestnut Romeo and Juliet.
And then there's Pandi, the wiry teacher with the twinkling eyes and grandfatherly mustache. Off ice, he warms up next to her, making her giggle and blush as they stretch and jump.
"I'm not the coach and she's not my skater, so we have a different chemistry," he insisted.
Meissner is back in Florida now, training with her coaches, Richard Callaghan and Todd Eldredge, as she prepares for a preseason competition, most likely the Liberty Figure Skating Club of Philadelphia's event, July 17 and 18. Then, she will have to compete at the South Atlantic Regional Championships in Rockville, Oct. 9-13.
The skater says she'll draw on Pandi's observations, with her focus on the U.S. championships in late January, where two women will be selected to represent this country at the Winter Olympics.
"It was a shock, at first, when I met him," Meissner said. "I was, like, blown away by everything he told me. He pulls out these words of wisdom all the time. And I just soak it in. He brings so much to what I do because he helps me realize little things that can make [my performance] 10 times better."
So, her posture is straighter, her arm motions are softer and the things she used to rush through are taken more deliberately.
"She has so much inner beauty that we need to bring to the surface," Pandi said. "I'm asking her not to think of the technical. I'm asking her to think of the music."
Fleming, who has counseled Meissner on costume and appearance, said the ballet teacher's advice might give the skater something to think about as she tries to regain Olympic form.
"But the rest," Fleming said, "is up to her."
Meissner hopes new instructor helps artistic side shine through
Working with ex-ballet performer, skater aims to breathe more life into program
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