Meissner rings up useful experience

Rick Maese

TURIN, ITALY

As Sasha Cohen stood on a podium and felt 20 ounces of silver pulling at her neck, David Raith was talking about the future. Raith is the executive director of U.S. Figure Skating. You bet he's excited about Cohen's finish, but his hope comes from scanning further down the leader board.

If there were a script, you'd know that these Olympics were meant to be the Sasha Games. Now look ahead four years, as Raith does, and you can see why he's optimistic.

Michelle Kwan will be gone. Some think Cohen will hang up her skates, too. The Vancouver Games in 2010 are tailored for young skaters like Kimmie Meissner, the 16-year-old from Bel Air.

"We're just really excited," Raith said. "We have great plans for the next four years."

Meissner finished in sixth place at these Winter Games. If you would've told her two weeks ago that she'd be anywhere in the Top 10, Meissner would've flung her skates in the air in celebration. The podium was never in the cards this time. If you want meaning and purpose from the past few days, remember that these Olympics are a training ground for 2010.

"I think she listened, she watched the other competitors out there. And she certainly learned from all this," Raith said. "It's something to build on."

Last night, Meissner watched Georgia's Elene Gedevanishvili stumble, Cohen crash and Japan's Fumie Suguri score low. Skating second to last, Meissner still had only a small opening to reach the top three. Her long program score was 106.31. If she could've matched her personal best (110.80), she would've finished in fifth. To have won bronze, Meissner needed a 122. She might've had a chance if her program had been perfect, according to Raith.

Meissner never seemed sad, and her disappointment was never evident.

"It's not always about what color medal you get," she said. "It's more about if you have a good time and take away a good experience."

Experience is the key word. Last night, last week, the past month - it has all been a series of eye-openers for Meissner. Strung together, it's all preparation for what lies ahead.

Figure skating is a sport where you can almost see the baton switch hands. Nancy Kerrigan watched Kristi Yamaguchi win gold in 1992. Two years later, Kerrigan won silver. Michelle Kwan was an alternate in 1994 and took silver in 1998. And you remember just four years ago: Kwan competed in her last Olympics, and a 17-year-old Cohen finished in fourth place.

This time, it was Meissner who studied from the background, as the American favorite tried to live up to expectations. There were two valuable lessons Meissner should've picked up this week. On Tuesday, we saw that she belongs on the same ice as the best in the world. And last night, we saw what still separates her from the best in the world.

The three medalists all embody qualities that Meissner lacks right now. Japan's golden girl Shizuka Arakawa moves like gift-wrapped grace. Cohen is a ballerina whose skating resembles a lively conversation, engaging every single person in the building. And Russia's bronze medalist Irina Slutskaya punctuates each move with amazing confidence.

The differences between the world's finest and Bel Air's best was very evident. Meissner is an incredible leaper, but at times looks like she's mimicking and not performing. You can almost see her thinking through her program, making her movements one at a time, as though she were connecting dots on the ice.

Her program isn't fluid right now. She's staccato in a sport that rewards only legato.

Last night marked the first time Meissner was so close to the sport's elite. She had never skated in a group that featured so much talent.

"Being on the ice with people she'd looked up to for years was kind of overwhelming maybe," her coach, Pam Gregory, said. Perhaps, inspiring, too.

The faces will change, the older skaters will move on. Even if Cohen sticks around, Meissner should be in position to wear the U.S. crown in a couple of years.

Overall, Gregory said the Olympic experience won't just pay dividends four years from now. The coach is looking for immediate results.

"I think even at [the world championships] this year she'll probably be better just having skated with these people," Gregory said. "That's kind of been her way all along. The first experience might not go terrific, but then once she knows what to expect, then it goes well."

The most ideal way to enter Vancouver is with the Turin Games on her resume. Can you imagine how many athletes would perform better under the Olympic spotlight if they'd simply seen the glare once before? Trust me, your eyes adjust to the light. Don't forget that a 15-year-old swimmer named Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut in 2000, going home with a fifth-place finish. Four years later, he won eight Olympic medals, six of them gold.

Meissner will return home next week. She might take only one day off before she starts practicing again. The world championships are just three weeks away. While Meissner turns her focus to that, the rest of us can't help but wonder what lies four years down the road.

"I think it definitely inspires me to make it back so I can try and do a better program," she said. "And also because I had such a great time here, I don't really want to miss [Vancouver]."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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