On her way to Toronto recently to work with her choreographer for the new figure skating season that begins this week, Kimmie Meissner stopped at the border crossing. A guard asked the U.S. champion the reason for the visit.
"Business," said Meissner, replaying both roles in the story with great relish.
"Business?" asked the guard as she stared at the skater's passport. "What do you do?"
"Figure skating," said Meissner, her grin getting bigger.
"Well, you keep practicing and maybe someday you'll get to the Olympics," the guard said, waving Meissner through.
Meissner enjoys telling the story and the point it makes. Even with a sixth-place finish at last year's Olympics and world and national titles on her resume, the 18-year-old from Bel Air mostly flies under the radar.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, considering the hectic pace last year that left her and coach Pam Gregory running on fumes by the world championships in March.
With a packed Tokyo venue screaming for hometown sweetheart Mao Asada, Meissner finished fourth and relinquished her world title to another Japanese skater, Miki Ando.
"That was huge pressure for both of us," Gregory said. "We'd never been in that position. But I think with every experience, we grow. ... She was very nervous and still managed to do a very respectable job. I don't think No. 4 in the world is too shabby."
For her part, Meissner said the experience toughened her to skate "when the building's shaking."
A sonic boom isn't likely to happen Saturday and Sunday, as Meissner again faces Ando at Skate America in Reading, Pa., the first stop on the Grand Prix circuit. Before a sparse crowd last year, Ando won the event, with Meissner the runner-up.
The field also includes U.S. skater Emily Hughes, who has never bested Meissner on the senior circuit, and Caroline Zhang, 14, from California, who won the World Junior Championships this year and the Junior Grand Prix Final last year.
"I think I'm coming in a stronger skater," Meissner said during a break in practice. "Last year, I kind of thought it was about what [score] I got, and I kind of lost myself a little bit. I think I've rediscovered why I skate. I love just skating and not getting wrapped up in everything. I've never been one to really get into 'I have to get first. I have to beat this person, or I have to get a certain amount of points.' I just have to skate well. So I've kind of refocused."
She's taking three classes at the University of Delaware - English on campus and philosophy and psychology online. And while she lives at home, she has the freedom of driving her own car, a BMW 325.
Gregory, who has set ambitious goals for Meissner since the two began working together on the novice level, said the challenge this year is the defense of her U.S. title and a return to the podium at the World Championships.
Michelle Kwan, the nine-time U.S. and five-time world champion, calls Meissner "the new face of figure skating" and said the important thing for her right now is to find ways to stay motivated.
"I know Kimmie; we've been staying in touch via e-mail. The main thing for her is to keep working hard. She's constantly trying new things, new programs and she's staying fresh," Kwan said.
Already, Gregory and Meissner are taking chances, changing her long program and choreographer just four weeks ago after the original four-minute routine proved unworkable.
"It wasn't me. It didn't inspire me. It didn't challenge," Meissner said.
That meant dumping renowned choreographer David Wilson and "Ever After," a song from the 1998 movie of the same name that starred Drew Barrymore as a real-life Cinderella.
To replace them, Meissner returned to her longtime choreographer, Lori Nichol, who prepared a routine to Luciano Pavarotti's signature piece, "Nessun Dorma," a figure-skating staple used mostly by pairs.
"She won't be in the best shape for the Grand Prixs, but it was worth the change for her," Gregory said. "The new program will be a winner for her, if it's well rehearsed."
Kwan said Meissner has always been a very polished skater but now has to work on making all the elements of her program flow seamlessly, a difficult assignment under the new scoring system.
"It's supposed to be a very fluid sport, and that's why skating is beautiful. You don't see people stopping on the ice and then preparing for a triple-triple. I think maybe she's focusing on incorporating the difficult elements and making them a part of the whole program," Kwan said.
For Meissner, who has been criticized for not showing enough passion in her performances, the Pavarotti selection tapped into an emotion-packed memory.
Her eyes light up and glisten as she recalls being one of the 35,000 athletes and fans at Olympic Stadium in Turin, Italy, when Pavarotti concluded the opening ceremony of the 2006 Olympics with the aria, his final public performance before his death last month.
"Every time I hear it, I feel the music. I remember the feeling being there. I feel lucky that I got to hear him," she said. "I try to bring that happiness to the program."
Meissner said she can imagine the crowd's appreciative roars in her ears at certain points of the 4 1/2 -minute performance.
And as she goes into her final triple jump and spin combination, Meissner remembers the final words Pavarotti sang: "I shall win!"
firstname.lastname@example.orgSun columnist Rick Maese contributed to this article.