PORTLAND, Ore. - Writing about the 2006 Olympic hopes of 15-year-old Kimmie Meissner in September, when few outside of Meissner's Bel Air neighborhood knew the talented figure skater's name, I noted that new rules could hurt her chances to be an Olympic star as fast as the last two gold medalists.
Because she does not meet the age requirement imposed in 1999 for the senior world meet, Meissner will go into the Olympic year without the experience Tara Lipinski had before winning the 1998 gold at 15 and Sarah Hughes had before winning the 2002 gold at 16. Lipinski skated in two senior worlds before the Olympics; Hughes, three.
Meissner's coach, Pam Gregory, decried the potential impact of that age restriction well before Meissner stole the show from Michelle Kwan in Saturday's free skate final at the U.S. championships.
"I am disappointed about that," Gregory said in September. "It could hurt Kimmie. Let's say she skates her brains out at nationals and finishes in the top three [which would normally qualify for worlds]. To get that experience on the world scene before the Olympics would be invaluable."
Meissner skated her brains out in her senior national debut, giving a performance that earned her third place and deserved second. While Kwan tries to win a sixth world title two months from now in Moscow, where Russia's Irina Slutskaya will be favored, Meissner must content herself with the world junior championships two weeks earlier in Canada because she turned 15 after July 1 of last year.
That is a shame, for Meissner's skating belongs on the senior level - and not only because she became the second U.S. woman, and first since 1991, to land a triple axel in competition.
"It's amazing," Kwan said of Meissner's historic jump. "You hear about all the triple-triples [jump combinations] and see a few, but not too many triple axels."
Only the lack of an established reputation and some wrong-headed judging kept Meissner from beating runner-up Sasha Cohen.
The axel was among seven triples Meissner landed. Two were triple lutzes - the most difficult jump after the axel. There also was a triple-double-double combination near the end of her four-minute program.
Cohen, meanwhile, landed just four triples, falling on a fifth and putting her hands on the ice to prevent a fall on the sixth. The last triple attempt came with more than a minute left.
Though skating is more than jumping, Meissner's superiority in that area should have been enough to overcome the advantage Cohen had in presentation, especially considering that Meissner's artistry was remarkably refined for her age.
It would have been interesting to see the results had the performances been judged under the sport's new points scoring system, to be used at the upcoming worlds and 2006 Olympics, rather than the 6.0 system. Meissner might even have beaten Kwan in the free skate, when the champion landed only five triples, had typically underwhelming spins and lacked the spark that has marked so many of her outings.
This was the least impressive free skate Kwan has done in the nine U.S. championships she has won, even if it drew four perfect presentation scores from judges who debased that mark last week by giving 6s like candy.
Kwan realizes she would have been more harshly judged in the new system, saying, "I'm going to be sad when the 6.0 system goes."
It went from the U.S. championships as of Saturday. So Kwan vowed to begin focusing on technical upgrades to her programs after one day of celebrating the victory that tied the record for U.S. titles established by Maribel Vinson Owen 68 years ago.
"There are a lot of things to work on: spins, changes of edge, spirals and footwork," Kwan said. "I am going to have people help me out to make sure I know what is needed."
Cohen, second to Kwan for the fourth time since 2000, still needs the mental toughness to be a champion. Saturday's was yet another flawed Cohen free skate. "It's not in my plan not to skate perfectly," Cohen said, perhaps hoping the double negative will produce a positive.
While Cohen looks for a plan to beat Kwan, she suddenly must look over her shoulder at Meissner, the way Kwan had to at Lipinski in 1997 and Cohen in 2000. The difference is though Lipinski defeated Kwan in four of their final six meetings, including the Olympics, Cohen never has done it in Olympic-style events.
The fearless Meissner, fourth after the short program with nothing to lose, said she still would have attempted the triple axel even if a senior world team place had been at stake.
The stakes have been raised for her already. Things were simple before Saturday, when she jumped from future to present with 3 1/2 revolutions in the air.
Gregory said in September she could see Meissner in the 2006 Olympics. Given recent history, it would not be a shock to see her on the awards stand.
Phil Hersh writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.