With bronze and silver medals already at home in Maryland, Kimmie Meissner will try to complete the set this week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Her timing couldn't be better. Michelle Kwan, the nine-time winner, and Sasha Cohen, last year's gold medalist, haven't put blades to ice competitively this season. The personal best score of Meissner's closest U.S. rival is 20 points lower. And the skater from Bel Air loves the nationals as much as they seem to love her.

Meissner and her coach have had their eyes on the top of the podium since late summer. With the reigning world champion enjoying some of the fruits of her victory last March and this being the year after the Olympics, coach Pam Gregory chose a training regimen high on experimentation and strengthening core skills and artistic presentation rather than one designed to dominate.

She tried the triple axel at the Paris Grand Prix event and again in December at a made-for-TV exhibition in Boston. Both times she fell, which threw off the rest of her programs.

As a result, the skater took second and third at her two Grand Prix events this season, better than last year but not good enough to compete in the final. That, Meissner said, was "a disappointment, but not a stopper."

Meissner is peaking at the right time, Gregory insists.

"You can't go an entire season up here," said Gregory, her hand forehead high. "There are ups and downs, and right now Kimmie is injury-free and focused."

The nationals have always been good to Meissner, 17, who won at the novice and junior levels before bursting onto the senior stage in 2005 with the first triple axel by a U.S. woman since Tonya Harding in 1991.

That performance in Portland, Ore., was good enough for the bronze medal and almost upstaged Kwan's final nationals victory.

Last year in St. Louis, she secured a spot on the Olympic team and came within a blown double axel of beating Cohen.

"I'm more confident on the ice. I feel I'm in really good shape," Meissner says. "We've been going every day, hard core."

None of the U.S. women has had a head-turning year. It is, says 1992 Olympic gold medalist and former world and national champion Kristi Yamaguchi, "the changing of the guard."

Meissner will compete tomorrow and Saturday against Emily Hughes, Alissa Czisny, Katy Taylor and Bebe Liang - all still in their teens.

Hughes, who turns 18 on Friday, would like nothing better than to trade up from last year's bronze to gold at the nationals. The crowd pleaser from Long Island, N.Y., and sister of Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes finished one place behind Meissner in Turin.

After a disastrous long program at Skate America, where she finished fifth, Hughes came within three points of winning the Cup of China, but settled for third.

Czisny, 19, had a great Grand Prix season last year, winning Skate Canada and taking second at Skate America. But whether it was nerves or weariness, the skater from Bowling Green, Ohio, faltered at the nationals, finishing seventh, and fell apart at the Grand Prix final. This season, she finished fourth at Skate Canada and ninth at the Cup of Russia.

Early in her skating career, Taylor was never more than a blade's length from Meissner. Born three weeks after Meissner, the Houston native finished second to her at U.S. Championships at the novice and junior levels. But from there, her performances have been uneven. She won the 2006 Four Continents Championships, but fell three times in her Skate America long program and could not crack the top 10 at her Grand Prix events.

After a beautiful short program at the nationals last year, Liang was ahead of Meissner but ran out of gas and faded to fifth. The 16-year-old from Granada Hills, Calif., had two top five Grand Prix performances this season.

Meissner said the new scoring system - to be used for the second time at the nationals - means that "anybody can step up and win if they want. It's definitely who does it that night."

But she insists that being billed as the skater to beat hasn't altered her preparation or gotten inside her head.

"Last year there was a lot of pressure because it was an Olympic year and everybody was really intense," she said. "I don't know if there's more pressure on me. I think it's on everybody."
>>> U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Through Saturday, Spokane, Wash., ESPN2; women's final live, Saturday, 4 p.m., chs. 2, 7
Competitors
Other skaters from Maryland competing this week at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash.:

Megan Williams-Stewart
Age // 19

Hometown // Ellicott City

Trains // Delaware

Coach // Jeff DiGregorio

This season // Fourth, Eastern Sectionals; third, Southern Atlantic Regionals.

Trips to nationals // Three

Highest finish // 10th

Shaun Rogers
Age // 21

Hometown // Millersville

Trains // Delaware

Coach // Pam Gregory

This season // Fourth, Eastern Sectionals; second, South Atlantic Regionals.

Trips to nationals // Four

Highest finish // Sixth

Scott Smith
Age // 25 Hometown // Sandy Spring

Trains // Boston

Coach // Mark Mitchell

This season // Sixth, Skate America; fourth, Cup of China.

Trips to nationals // Eight

Highest finish // Fourth

candy.thomson@baltsun.com