Meissner aims big at nationals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This week, Kimmie Meissner needs to skate nosebleed big.

So huge that even Mister Magoo could see her from the dizzying height of Section 320, Row Q, just under the roof of the Savvis Center in St. Louis.

Meissner knows that's what it will take to win one of the three tickets to Turin being handed out by the U.S. Olympic Committee after the national figure skating championships in St. Louis.

The gold medalist gets an automatic berth, with a selection committee of 36 athletes, coaches and skating officials picking the other two.

Two-time world silver medalist Sasha Cohen is the favorite to make the team, and nine-time national champion Michelle Kwan is petitioning to make it on a medical waiver. That could set up a battle for the remaining spot among a group of young skaters with talent but little in the way of international experience.

Meissner, with just two senior Grand Prix events on her resume, is one of them.

But the 5-foot-tall Bel Air teen has risen to the occasion before.

She was the 2003 U.S. Novice champion and the 2004 Junior champion. Two years ago, she won the bronze medal at the Junior Grand Prix final and the silver at the Junior World Championships.

But she arrived as a true Olympic contender this time last year at the national championships. Meissner not only won the bronze medal, but she also nailed a triple axel, a jump not completed by an American woman since Tonya Harding in 1991.

Meissner's goal, she said before the competition started, was to "make all of my moves bigger ... to do skating so the people in the nosebleed sections could see what I was doing."

She came. They saw. She conquered.

Meissner landed seven triple jumps, including the triple axel and two triple lutzes - the second-most difficult jump. But perhaps more importantly, she showed her strength by including a triple-double-double combination near the end of her four-minute program, something that carries additional weight under the new scoring system that will be used for the first time at nationals and the Olympics.

But her surprising performance (some thought she should have earned the silver medal) resulted in a deluge of national publicity that disrupted her training and contributed to her shaky fourth-place showing at the junior world championships six weeks later, said her coach, Pam Gregory.

This season, Meissner took her first steps on the senior Grand Prix circuit and experienced all the triumphs and rejections of a political exploratory committee.

"For my first year, I didn't know how things were going to work. I really attacked it," said Meissner, 16 and a Fallston High School junior.

At the Trophee Bompard in Paris in November, she skated a mistake-filled short program but regrouped in a long program that included two triple-triple combinations and two triple lutzes to finish fifth overall.

"I learned so much. It was a strong field. Going out in the last group was like going to worlds," she said of the group that included Cohen and the eventual Grand Prix Final winner, Mao Asada. "I skated last, and that made me tight. I finally just kind of said to myself, 'Bring it on,' and I redeemed myself."

Two weeks later at the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan, she started well and was in third place going into the long program. But as in her performance at the 2005 junior worlds, she lost her focus and dropped two places.

Still, Gregory is pleased with her progress.

"She's been with everybody now and every time she goes out there, she's doing better," said Gregory, who coaches at the University of Delaware skating rink in Newark.

So which Meissner will figure skating judges see Thursday and Saturday nights: the girl with no expectations who turned heads last year or the young woman still learning her way?

Just like last year, Meissner said she's hoping for a top-10 finish.

She will likely be pushed by two competitors who are also a year wiser: Emily Hughes, sister of reigning Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, who finished sixth at nationals last year, and Alissa Czisny, who finished seventh last year, but won a Grand Prix event this season.

Meissner first saw Kwan skate at the national championships in Philadelphia in 1998, where she fought off the effects of a toe stress fracture and earned 15 perfect scores to win the second of her nine titles.

Although she's injured this time, Kwan will still loom large over this year's championships.

"It really doesn't matter to Kimmie," Gregory said of Kwan's absence. "If she can keep focused, she'll do all right."

Meissner said she can't concern herself with things beyond her control.

"It's going to be hard to top last year's performance," she acknowledged. "Italy would be a nice cherry on the top, but I'll be fine no matter what."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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