Kimmie Meissner

Bel Air resident Kimmie Meissner competes during the short program. She finished 12.65 points out of first place. (Getty Images / January 24, 2008)

Perhaps a young competitor best summed up the opening night of the U.S. women's figure skating championships.

"I think at this nationals, anything can happen," said Rachael Flatt, 15, who stands in third place after the short program.

Defending champion Kimmie Meissner rallied from an early tumble, but it wasn't enough to hold off a trio of dynamos who electrified the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center with performances worthy of a veteran.

Meissner had to settle for fourth place with a score of 57.58 -- 5.33 points behind Flatt and a whopping 12.65 points behind the leader, Mirai Nagasu.

The Bel Air teen called the fall on a triple flip -- the second element in her program -- "a silly mistake," and used it to gather herself.

"'All right, Kimmie, that's not right. There's no falling in figure skating,' " she said she thought to herself. "I've had falls in competitions, so I know how to recover from it."

Skating to "The Feeling Begins," Meissner landed a triple lutz-double toe combination jump and began checking off the other requirements. By the time she reached the double axel jump, she had a smile on her face.

She received a technical score of 30.58 and a component score of 28.00 for a total of 57.58 after a one-point deduction for the fall.

Nagasu, 14, last year's junior national champion, announced her arrival at the senior level with an opening triple lutz-triple toe combination and then tore through the rest of her program, skated to "I Got Rhythm," with joy and energy. The judges gave her a technical score of 41.40 and a component score of 28.83 for a total of 70.23. The crowd roared its approval.

"That was fun, pure fun," said Nagasu, the runner-up at junior worlds last year. "That's what I'm here to do."

Next up, Flatt answered with an almost equally dazzling performance to another George Gershwin standard, "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Flatt, in her second appearance as a senior, also executed a triple lutz-triple toe on her way to a technical score of 35.74 and a component score of 27.17 for a total of 62.91.

"It's so great to know I skated my best. I just knew I could do it," she said.

Skating near the end of the field of 20 competitors, Ashley Wagner altered the standings again with a performance to "King Henry VII" that included a triple lutz-triple loop.

"I thought the performance as a whole thing was good. I was just so excited to be out there," Wagner said.

The long program will be held tomorrow.

If these standings were to hold, U.S. figure skating officials would face a difficult choice in picking three skaters to attend the world championships in March. Nagasu and Flatt are ineligible under International Skating Union rules because of their age. Neither girl turned 15 by the July 1, 2007 cutoff.

Almost forgotten in the action was Caroline Zhang, 14, last year's junior world champion, who looked unsettled and tentative on her way to a seventh-place showing.

"I thought it was OK. I think I could have done a lot better," Zhang said.

Zhang said her opening triple combination jump had been shaky in warmups and it carried over into her performance.

Skating third to a medley of American pop standards, Megan Williams-Stewart, 20, of Ellicott City, turned in a personal-best performance. The judges gave her a technical score of 27.26 and a program component score of 21.97 with no deductions. She ended the evening in 12th place.

In ice dancing, four-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto inched closer to another title with a first-place performance in original dance to go with their win in compulsory dance. With two second-place showings, Meryl Davis and Charlie White are fewer than three points back. The free dance will be tomorrow before the women's long program.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com