PORTLAND, Ore. - For Kimmie Meissner and Shaun Rogers, the road to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is called Interstate 95.
The two Maryland skaters sometimes travel it together on the way to daily practice at the University of Delaware skating program. They have the same coaches. They goad each other on the ice to keep the competitive juices flowing. They will cheer for each other Thursday and Saturday during their short and long programs.
But their destinations are likely to be different.
Meissner, 15, of Bel Air, has a real chance at a medal and a place on the 2006 Olympic team. Rogers, 19, of Millersville, is hoping for a finish in the top six and a trip to the 2010 Winter Games.
A skater building a career couldn't have done a better job than Meissner, the 2003 U.S. Novice champion and the 2004 Junior champion. In addition, she was second at the Junior World Championships last March and third at the recent Junior Grand Prix final.
Last fall, in her first senior circuit competition, Meissner finished fifth in a field that included Michelle Kwan, the reigning U.S. champ, and 2004 worlds silver medalist Sasha Cohen.
Her coach, Pam Gregory, says Meissner possesses mental toughness and the ability to regroup after a mistake. That was evident last month at the Junior Grand Prix final, in which she performed poorly in the short program, leaving her in seventh place. She roared back in the long program with the second best on the evening, and bounced from seventh to third.
Sometimes, it's easy to forget that Meissner was just 3 when Kwan competed in her first U.S. championships. Yet, her age will be a factor this year. Meissner didn't turn 15 until October, missing the age cutoff for the World Championships in March by about three months.
Still, she's thrilled to be on the same program as Kwan, who is attempting to be the first woman to win eight straight U.S. titles.
"I remember watching her on TV when I was little," said Meissner. "It's really cool to be skating against her now."
Meissner's skating lessons started when she was 6. She switched to private lessons when she was 8 and then to the University of Delaware program.
Yesterday, the Fallston High School sophomore practiced at the Rose Garden arena, crisscrossing the ice with Cohen and Emily Hughes, the younger sister of 2002 Olympic figure skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes.
Despite all the commotion around her, Meissner seemed focused, pausing occasionally to look up toward the darkened recesses of an arena that will be filled for Saturday's finale-the free skate, which she will perform to Daphnis and Chloe. She may include a triple axel in her program and a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.
"A personal goal for me is to do skating so the people in the nosebleed sections could see what I was doing," she said last month. "I will have to make all my moves bigger."
Rogers' early days mirrored Meissner's. He started in the sport at 8, when he went to a skating party for his Old Mill Middle School class. He liked it and started group lessons. "It gradually evolved into private lessons and now I'm up at Delaware," he said.
Coaches Gregory and Ron Ludington devise contests to keep the two skaters focused and on top of their games.
"They'll have us do jumps side-by-side. We compete for little rewards, like one person will get the other person lunch," said Rogers, who made it to the nationals by finishing second at the Eastern sectionals.
"Kimmie's pretty care-free. She's fun to watch. She's gone from being a cute little girl skater to a more mature presentation on the ice."
His goal is to make the senior world team this year and Olympic team that goes to Vancouver in 2010, which means more years of grueling practices and travel. By that time, he will still be younger than three-time U.S. champion Michael Weiss and 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel, who are here this week and practicing in the same group as Rogers.
His short program is performed to Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. His long program is to the Matrix and includes a quad toe, two triple axels, a triple lutz, triple flip, triple loop, triple salchow and a triple toe.
"My programs are pretty stacked with the jumps," he says. "I do quad jumps in both programs and not many of the guys in the U.S. are doing that right now. I'm definitely a lot better at the athletic stuff right now than the choreography and presentation."
What: U.S. Figure Skating Championships
Where: Rose Garden Arena and Memorial Coliseum, Portland, Ore.
When: Through Saturday
TV: ESPN2 (tomorrow and Friday) and chs. 2, 7 (Saturday)