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A normal routine

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEWARK, Del.-- --So the skier gets wasted before competing. And two female skeleton sliders accuse their coach of sexual harassment. Then the top men's slider fails a drug test. And what about that saucy U.S. women's luge team? They appeared on a Web site promoting a drinking game with only their sleds covering them.

When did the Olympic rings become interchangeable with Dante's circles?

The Winter Games are still three weeks away, yet the bad boys of the Olympics already have us shaking our heads. But all is not scandalous this year. If you're looking for some good in these Games, you really don't have to search far.

Competing in a sport that resembles bad reality television, Kimmie Meissner, a 16-year-old figure skater from Bel Air, is amazingly normal. "She's miles apart from other skaters," says Ron Ludington, director of the Ice Skating Science Development Center at the University of Delaware, where Meissner trains.

Everyone can feel it, too. There's just something about Kimmie.

Last weekend, she finished second at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Louis and secured a spot on the Olympic team. Meissner returned to classes earlier this week at Fallston High, and as she walked down the hallways, other students actually stopped what they were doing and began clapping for the backpack-wearing Olympian. You would've thought a test was canceled or the chemistry teacher called in sick.

We view Meissner against the backdrop, of course. Figure skating doesn't always breed well-rounded young women. It's packed with beauty-pageant moms and single-tracked daughters.

Judy Meissner was committed to giving her daughter a balanced adolescence. It's the main reason that Meissner still attends a public school. Many elite skaters have personal tutors or attend flexible private schools.

"The skating world is a small community, and she needs to realize there's a bigger world out there," says Judy.

Many other skater moms set up a lounger in their coach's ear, freely offering advice and instruction and criticism. Mom Judy chills on the bleachers with a book. Dad Paul is an ardent supporter, but frankly, the Maryland podiatrist barely knows a triple axel from a car axle.

Meissner just seems incredibly normal, which is about the highest compliment you can pay a figure skater. Skaters such as Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen are like mail-order porcelain dolls that you keep high on a shelf. Meissner is the store-bought doll that the neighbor kids come over to play with.

Women's figure skating has never seemed to function as a normal sport. The Meissners raised their daughter - the youngest of four and the only girl - as though Kimmie were playing for the youth hockey league, not pampering her for American Idol on ice.

"We've always made skating a privilege," says Judy. "It's always been something I've told her to appreciate while she has it."

Right now, this is all fun for Meissner. She doesn't talk about standing on a medal stand and looking down at fans. She talks about gliding across the ice in Turin and looking down at the Olympic logo.

"For Kimmie, the ice rink ... is like a playground," says her coach, Pam Gregory. "She loves it out there."

In one month, eyes across the globe will be watching her compete. She is hardly a favorite, but then again, neither was Sarah Hughes four years ago. Like Meissner, Hughes finished second at nationals and went on to win gold in the Salt Lake City Olympics.

The significance of it all hasn't hit Meissner yet. This week, she's been mostly nervous about an algebra test scheduled for this morning.

While other skaters flash a programmed smile and toss around professionally honed manners, Meissner is "like any other kid," says Ludington, a bronze medalist in the 1960 Games.

Meissner smiles on her bad days. She doesn't have her learner's permit to drive. She blushes when she talks about her celebrity crushes. And she pokes fun at her three older brothers.

You really should see her work a room. She's like a charming publicist with no agenda. At a news conference yesterday, she had three dozen journalists alternately fawning and laughing. She's at ease in front of cameras and records, but "if I had to go in front of my classmates and talk," she says, "that makes me nervous."

Meissner and her family leave for Italy in a couple of weeks. The high school junior will likely have a binder full of math homework in tow, but she'll be focusing most of her attention on skating. At least for a couple of weeks.

At some point she'll come back to Bel Air. She'll walk down the same school hallways and finish the 11th grade - as normal as normal can be when you're a 16-year-old Olympian.

"This isn't everything," her mother says. "This isn't the end-all."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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