Ex-Olympic figure skater Kimmie Meissner finds a second life on ice as youth coach and mentor

Amid the mundane ice-rink bustle of junior varsity hockey players lugging their equipment and parents chatting by the snack bar, the former Olympian slips in almost unnoticed.

Clad in a tidy black pullover and clutching a sleek silver thermos, she could pass for any suburban hobbyist or a young mother shepherding her kid to a lesson. She wears a cheerfully harried expression, having battled downtown traffic to make her afternoon appointment. There’s no sign to remind you that once upon a time, Kimmie Meissner landed a triple axel in competition and reigned as the champion of the world.

Ice World in Abingdon is Meissner’s office now, much as it was when she was trying to outskate the best in her sport. These days, the 28-year-old Baltimore resident pours her passion and wisdom into younger vessels as a coach to aspiring champions. But her leap from one role to the next was hardly clean.

Just a few years ago, as she coped with the unwelcome end to her career as a world-class competitor, Meissner wanted no part of scenes like this. The rink was a place to be avoided. She never put on the skates that had carried her to glory as a 16-year-old phenom.

“I just said a big old no to skating, all forms of it,” she says.

Figure skating had consumed her days and her dreams from grade school on through her teenage years. But she was a shadow of the fearless jumper who’d qualified for the 2006 Olympics. Injuries had sapped the spring from her legs. Big-event falters and frayed relationships with coaches had wrecked her confidence. And the deaths of several people close to her had wounded her normally buoyant spirit.

Meissner was depressed, and without the familiar tug of her skating ambitions, she didn’t know how to pull out of her malaise. Friends didn’t understand how shaken she was by her separation from the sport that had been her identity. She couldn’t just go out to a party and be the old, upbeat Kimmie.

“I had no idea who I was without skating,” she says. “It all hit me at one time, and it was like, ‘You know what, I’m done.’ Anything that I used to like, I stopped liking, and I just kind of shut down from everything.”

After stepping out, a return

She assesses her former self from the perspective of a 28-year-old who’s living a life in full. Meissner rekindled her romance with the ice, first by coaching kids who reminded her how innocently she’d loved the sport and then by skating with her old compatriots in professional exhibitions. She graduated from Towson University in 2014 and made plans to become a physician’s assistant. She moved to downtown Baltimore, where she works as a part-time physical therapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and trains her 4-year-old Australian shepherd, Keats (after her favorite Romantic poet), to be a therapy dog. She talks of joining Michael Phelps and others in speaking out about the darker moods that sometimes consume athletes in the wake of Olympic glory.

For example, when American medal hopeful Gracie Gold stepped away from the sport last fall to focus on treatment for depression and an eating disorder, Meissner sent her a supportive message.

“I was just so proud of her for doing that and actually taking care of herself before everything else,” she says. “And not being afraid to say I don’t feel 100 percent right now. I think that needs to be more the norm.”

Meissner needed the better part of five years to make peace with her own career.

“Now, I’m completely fine with it,” she says. “I can talk about it and go back through it. I feel like I’ve learned so much more about how I handle things, and I understand what was going on. I think at the time, I just didn’t understand what was happening at all.”

Meissner will happily watch the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, something she could not bring herself to do in 2010, when the sting of being stuck at home overwhelmed her. She won’t exactly take in the figure skating like a regular person. She still feels every exhilarating jump, every dispiriting fall and every vexing judge’s score as if she were the one competing.

She’s young enough that several members of the current U.S. team, including Mirai Nagasu and first alternate Ashley Wagner, are contemporaries.

She watched the recent U.S. Championships with her boyfriend and her roommates. To their casual eyes, Wagner deserved to finish fourth and miss the squad for South Korea. But Meissner empathized with Wagner’s anger as her last Olympic quest died at the discretion of the judges. On the men’s side, she felt Ross Miner’s pain as he finished second at nationals only to be left off the Olympic team by a committee vote.

“What if that was me?” she thought.

At the Sochi Games in 2014, Meissner (there as a research assistant for NBC) watched a practice with her idol, two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan.

“Does it ever get easier to watch and not be able to participate?” Meissner asked.

“Nope,” Kwan said.

But at least watching is no longer a tortured experience.

Dizzying rise, imperfect landing

There’s a rare psychological peril to being an Olympic athlete.

Meissner devoted much of her existence to peaking at the exact right moment — “four minutes to determine your entire life” as she puts it — to win a gold medal.

Along the way, she rose from Harford County — an area hardly known as a skating hotbed — to rank among the best in the world. She landed jumps that had previously been off limits to most American women. By almost any measure, she authored a spectacular story.

Yet she never put together her best performance at the Olympics, the only stage that registers for many casual sports fans. So to this day, people approach her with condolences for her “disappointing” career.

“I still hold a bunch of records and feel good about what I did,” she says, laughing at the thought of those fan encounters. “But those are the times when I realize all of a sudden, ‘Is that what people think of me? That I almost made it but I didn’t?’ ”

Her mother, Judy, recalls how cruel people could be in their assessments of Kimmie’s performance and even her appearance.

“She was at the prime age for trying to figure out who she was anyway,” Judy says. “And then there were people scrutinizing her and telling her what she should be. It was really hard.”

At this point, Meissner has no trouble dwelling on the wonderful part of her career — the whirlwind rise, the unexpected Olympic berth at age 16 in 2006, the seven triples she landed to seize the world championship later that year.

But she acknowledges her time on top was fleeting. She grew apart from her longtime coach, Pam Gregory, and as early as 2007, she felt serious misgivings about the direction of her career.

Then in the middle of a difficult 2008 campaign during which she placed seventh at both nationals and worlds, she moved to Florida to work with a new coach, Richard Callaghan.

The arrangement simply did not work. Callaghan harped on Meissner to treat skating as her job. But she felt that approach robbed her of the joy that had always fueled her best performances. She felt homesick, and her body broke down, with ankle, hip and knee injuries knocking her out of 2009 nationals and then 2010 worlds. She still talked about working her way back, but the truth was that at age 20, she was done as a world-class skater.

On top of her athletic woes, she watched a beloved aunt and an 8-year-old friend from the Cool Kids Campaign, a nonprofit that supports pediatric cancer patients, die in short succession.

“You’re going from extreme highs to extreme lows,” Judy Meissner says. “She didn’t have time to grieve. Not only was she grieving the loss of her sport, but it was all tangled in a web with the other losses. We all have those experiences eventually, but she got it at a really young, vulnerable age.”

Coaching flips the switch

Coaching turned out to be the lure that pulled her back to the rink after about 2½ years away.

“I found a lot of joy just in working with younger, untainted skaters,” Meissner says. “I was kind of feeling like nothing would ever bring me back to this side of it. So it really caught me off guard how much joy I got from being with the younger skaters, seeing their successes and how excited they were just to work on the most basic jump. It really put a lot of things in perspective for me.”

Meissner’s daily coaching sessions evoke her own childhood, when she started skating in the backyard of her family’s Bel Air home as a way to keep up with her three older brothers. Like her pupils, she grew up training at Ice World, though she did her more intensive work at the University of Delaware, with Gregory.

Meissner works one-on-one with skaters ranging from ages 10 to 18, most of them yearning to compete at the national, or even Olympic, level. She encourages their hopes but also delivers reality checks.

“It’s hard to break through,” she says. “A lot of them think, ‘Oh, I want to be in the Olympics, just like you were.’ But it took a lot of steps to get there. Just to make it out of the region is huge. It’s an interesting position to be in, because I’m like, ‘If I could do it, you could do it.’ But it doesn’t happen just like that.”

Meissner has noticed a significant uptick in the number of dedicated, gifted skaters who train in Abingdon, and she allows that her success helped spark that development.

“I think it definitely created interest in this area,” she says. “And then by me skating here at the time I was competing, it drew people to this rink. And in turn, we started to get high-level coaching. So the focus changes all of a sudden. You have someone you’re watching who attains the goals you want, and you see how they do it.”

Kim Grimsley of Forest Hill recalls how her daughter, 13-year-old Autumn, always watched Meissner skate with wide eyes.

“Having a skater such as Kimmie at the rink is huge for these girls,” Grimsley says. “It helps give them inspiration. Not many places can you go to the local rink and have an Olympian as your coach.”

Parents of Meissner’s students say they’re continually struck by her accessibility and easygoing nature. Her talent is Olympian, but her ego is not.

“Kimmie’s just so approachable and down-to-earth,” says Olivia Eckels, whose 15-year-old daughter, Mia, travels from Shrewsbury, Pa., to work with Meissner. “I don’t think the kids are nervous to work with her at all. I think I would be, but she just knows the right amount of push to give them.”

Coaching has also led her to contemplate the overall state of American skating. Female skaters, from Dorothy Hamill to Kwan, have traditionally been the brightest winter stars in the U.S. Olympic firmament. But the country hasn’t produced a world-beater in several generations.

Meissner wonders whether U.S. skating might benefit from more uniform teaching methods for jumps and other techniques. When you watch a Russian skater jump, she says, you can tell it’s a Russian skater. That’s never been the case here.

“You’re getting a lot of different voices, which I don’t know if it’s a bad thing,” Meissner says. “But I know that sometimes when I see a student and you have to deconstruct everything, it can be a really long road and frustrating for them.”

Back out for a spin

Between coaching sessions, Meissner works on her own form for the ice shows she skates. Even though she felt like a baby deer at first, having to retrain her body to land those triples, she found joy in that humbling process as well.

“Why did I ever stop skating?” she wondered to herself.

When Judy noticed her going to the rink every day again, seemingly possessed by the old determination, she knew Kimmie was back to being herself. She and her husband, Paul, had faith their daughter would pull through her depression.

“It was just a matter of trying to convince her that she would,” Judy says.

When she reflects on the whole ride — which was never a grand plan but a reaction to her daughter’s rare drive and talent — she’s not always sure she would let Kimmie do it again. “It depends which day you ask me,” Judy says. “But it made her who she is today, and I’m really proud of her.”

Meissner’s exhibition schedule varies from year to year, but she skated in Lake Placid in December and at Bryant Park in Manhattan in January.

“It’s opened up a whole new creative and artistic side,” she says of her performances for Stars on Ice and other tours. “When I was like 16, doing something that was a little more sexy felt weird or something. But now it’s like I can try anything and I don’t have to feel embarrassed about it at all.”

You watch her laughing and chiding her students on the ice and you’d never guess how deeply the sport haunted her a few years ago.

“That was a good fall,” she says as she watches Mia Eckels tumble on the approach to a triple loop. “You knocked your hair out of place. But it was nice that you were really trying to go for it.”

She’s fine with her students taking risks and crashing. But when Eckels fails to rotate through a jump later in the session, Meissner charges her five pushups. Hesitation is the enemy.

Meissner feels free again when she pulls on her skates, and she never wants her young charges to forget that it’s all supposed to be fun.

“There’s no more heavy side to it,” Meissner says. “Now it’s just kind of how it was. It’s part of me. It’s what I do.”

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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