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Meissner retooling for a repeat

Sun reporter

She medaled at two international competitions this season and is the reigning U.S. figure skating champion.

Still, after a last-place performance at her first Grand Prix Final last month, some people are asking: "Is there something wrong with Kimmie Meissner?"

The skater's answer will come this week, beginning tomorrow, when she begins defense of her title in St. Paul, Minn., against a largely unheralded field.

But it's clear the Bel Air teen has changed her game plan. The normally gregarious Meissner has shied away from interviews in favor of more training.

"I'm keeping things low-key," she says between practice sessions at the University of Delaware.

There have been adjustments since the end of the Grand Prix season - "It wouldn't be a competition if I didn't change something," she says, joking. The setup for her jumps is new, and circular footwork has replaced straight-line steps. Last week, Meissner and coach Pam Gregory were trying to settle on a combination jump.

Judges this season have cracked down on skaters who don't complete the required number of rotations on jumps or use the wrong skate edge on takeoff. Tougher enforcement resulted in downgraded performances for all of the women's competitors at Skate America, which Meissner won, and at Skate Canada, where many of the elite athletes struggled.

So, Meissner is spending more time viewing video of her performances.

Not all of the video is her own, though. For inspiration last weekend, she went to YouTube and found performances of her idol, nine-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan.

"She used to go flying down the ice, and her footwork made everyone clap like crazy," says Meissner, 18. "How could you not want to be like that?"

After the Grand Prix Final, where Meissner fell three times in her long program, online skating forums questioned whether she overcommitted to charitable events and her first semester as a college freshman at the University of Delaware or whether she is suffering from growing pains that have vexed other young women in her sport.

A network commentator even used the word "comeback" to describe Meissner's future.

But not everyone raced for the emergency exits.

"It's just one event," says Scott Hamilton, NBC skating analyst and Olympic gold medalist. "Sometimes, it's those down times, those bad times that make a skater rise to the occasion. You don't always want to have a soft pillow, a tummy filled with warm milk and sunshine."

Meissner says she spent most of the season nursing a right ankle sprain she got just before Trophee Eric Bompard, where she finished second. That hampered her ability to pick the ice to vault into her flip and lutz jumps.

But Gregory, who has coached Meissner since the junior circuit, says the skater never made the injury suffered in November public or used it as an excuse.

"I admire her for that," Gregory says. "She never had much time between events to recover completely. She wasn't able to train as hard as she - and I - would have liked. Right now, she's at 85, 90 percent."

The Grand Prix Final in December, Gregory says, "wasn't fun, but it doesn't define Kimmie as a skater. It's toughened her up. That performance is not going to determine who's on the podium at worlds."

The women's field this week will not include 2007 runner-up Emily Hughes, who withdrew because of a hip injury. Bronze medalist Alissa Czisny will compete.

All eyes will be on Caroline Zhang, the 14-year-old from California who roared onto the senior Grand Prix circuit this season by finishing third at Skate America and second at Cup of China. She placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final, two spots ahead of Meissner, but will be age-ineligible to compete at the world championships in March.

Age restrictions also will prevent Mirai Nagasu, 14, of Montebello, Calif., from competing at worlds. She made a name for herself last season by beating Zhang for the Junior National title and then went on this season to take both junior Grand Prix events and the Final.

Behind them are two skaters who might figure into the world team this year or the Olympics in 2010: Virginia's Ashley Wagner, 16, who earned a bronze medal at Trophee Eric Bompard and finished fifth at Skate Canada, and Rachael Flatt, 15, of Del Mar, Calif., who was runner-up to Nagasu at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

Meissner remembers what it was like, just three years ago, to be considered an up-and-coming skater.

"I'd like it if they'd call me 'more mature' instead of 'old,'" she says. "We've got a lot of great younger skaters coming up. But I'm very determined, and I think it will be an exciting competition."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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