A year ago and a month removed from the Winter Olympics, Kimmie Meissner was just one of the young women using the World Figure Skating Championships to gain international experience.
Then, "she skated her brains out," says coach Pam Gregory, in a flawless seven triple-jump performance that brought the audience to its feet and Meissner to near tears.
It's hard to say who was more surprised, citizens of the figure skating world or the athlete herself.
But this year, the shock factor is gone. As the reigning world and U.S. champion, the Bel Air teen is the skater to beat in Tokyo.
It doesn't faze her.
"That was last season," she says of the world title. "I want to end the season on a high note. I've been practicing hard. As long as I skate like I do in practice, nothing else will matter."
Already this year, Meissner has won back-to-back gold medals at the U.S. nationals and the Four Continents Championships, the former on the surprising strength of her short program and the latter on a gutsy, come-from-behind long program.
Since then, she has signed three endorsement deals, cut a national TV spot for the Subway sandwich chain with pitchman Jared Fogle and skated in the "Stars on Ice" tour in Florida.
She still hasn't gotten her driver's license - a sore point - but she has been measured for a cap and gown for her May 31 graduation from Fallston High School, so there's some progress on the personal side, too.
Although she'll be defending her international crown Friday and Saturday, Meissner believes the pressure is on the Japanese skaters, who will be dealing with a massive - and sometimes highly critical - press corps.
Last year, for example, Japanese writers picked on Miki Ando after her 15th-place finish at the Turin Olympics, saying her "chunkiness" and "booty ballast" meant she was packing too much "lard to lift off." Others raked Olympic gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa over the coals for forgoing last year's worlds to turn pro.
Fans are just as serious. Tickets for the five days of competition at the 10,000-seat Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium went on sale Jan. 13 and sold out in hours.
Gregory says her student got a taste of the Japanese media frenzy at the 2005 NHK Championships in Osaka.
"We had never seen so many cameras," Gregory says. "You can just hear the clicking every time [Meissner] skated by. I just think it's going to be huge pressure for the Japanese skaters."
But with the pressure comes a benefit for Japanese champion Mao Asada and Ando, who beat Meissner last fall at Skate America: home-ice advantage.
"They're a good skating crowd," Meissner says. "But considering it's in Japan, I don't think I'm going to be the favorite."
Her even-keel approach is what makes her special, says Ron Ludington, a 1960 Olympic bronze medalist in figure skating and the director of the University of Delaware skating program, where Meissner trains.
"Kimmie is no different than she was last year or the year before," he says. "She's the most level kid. That's what makes her click so well, because she hasn't been carried away by everything that's taken place."
With Michelle Kwan, winner of five world and nine U.S. championships, going to college and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen pursuing an acting career, the next U.S. Olympic team is very much a work in progress.
They still have three years until the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games to figure it out. Until then, says Meissner, there are more pressure-packed situations than competing in the world championships. There's taking an English exam, practicing driving and, more recently, giving a speech at a student assembly.
"That was really nerve-racking," she says with a blush and giggle.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun