Olympic skater's mentor found her calling as coach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first time Pam Gregory wobbled onto the ice in skates, she screamed and cried the whole time.

"Why we ever went back, I couldn't tell you," says Ruth Duane, Gregory's mother.

But the 4-year-old stopped crying on the second visit to the Bowie Ice Arena, when she saw another girl spinning. Enchanted, she forgot her fears and threw herself into figure skating.

This month Gregory is going to the Olympics, not as a skater but as the coach of Kimmie Meissner, the Harford County teenager and runner-up at the U.S championships.

When Gregory talks, Meissner listens. Standing along the boards at a practice rink, their heads close together, the teacher and athlete work through a problem. Meissner, 16, translates Gregory's words into spins, spirals and jumps.

"She's focused. She's intense," says Gregory, 38. "But yet we have a really good time together on the ice."

Meissner's steady march up the figure-skating ladder began in 2003, after Gregory became her coach. She won the novice national title with a program that included double axel and triple lutz jumps. The next year, she won the junior national title and finished second at junior world championships.

In 2005, she won the bronze medal at the U.S. championships and was the talk of the event when she became the first American woman to hit the triple axel since Tonya Harding. Last month, she earned an Olympic berth by finishing second to Sasha Cohen at the nationals.

"It's been bing, bing, bing, bing," says Gregory. "Surprised? No. Kimmie's been the perfect student to work with. I feel extremely responsible for her success or failure because she puts so much faith in me when we work together. She really, truly does what I ask her to do."

In a sport built on glitter and makeup, Gregory is down-to-earth blunt - about the sport, about Meissner, about her own skating ability.

"I didn't really do much on my own, to be honest with you. I quit when I was relatively young - 14. I kind of just knew that unless I lived somewhere else where there was better training, that was as good as it was going to get for me, and so I stopped skating," she recalls without a hint of regret.

Richard Duane, a retired U.S. Airways pilot, says that as a youngster his daughter spent her summers away from their Prince George's County home at skating camps and in competitions. But as she matured, she wasn't willing to trade her life for the sport.

At 18, Gregory graduated from Duval High School in Lanham and went to the University of Maryland, hoping to become a teacher. About that time, she met Tim Murphy, a skater who showed her that not all instruction happens inside a classroom.

Gregory stopped taking courses and started working with Murphy at his Baltimore-based artistic skating company, the Next Ice Age.

"That was probably the most fortunate time for me, meeting him. He taught me a lot about music and skating," Gregory recalls.

In 1989, Gregory became one of the original members of the skating troupe, joining Murphy, co-founder Nathan Birch, and Shaun McGill. She got to skate live on TV on New Year's Eve with Olympic gold medalist John Curry, the group's mentor.

With those values, Gregory took her first steps into coaching. During a break from the Next Ice Age, she worked with the students of an injured coach.

"People liked working with me, and I picked up some of my own skaters," she said. "I found I had a knack for doing this. There's a different eye for it. If you're a great skater, you're not necessarily a good teacher. They don't go hand-in-hand. It takes an eye for the mistakes, for what's right and wrong."

In that first year of coaching, she had her first skater to go to the national championships - Jeff Merica of Annapolis.

Tired of moving her skaters from rink to rink, Gregory settled down in 1990 at the nationally renowned University of Delaware skating program, run by Ron Ludington, a 1960 Olympic bronze medalist in pairs. Ludington, a member of the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame, has coached skaters in 10 Olympics and 36 World Championships.

"He was a wonderful man to hire me and to see what I could really do," Gregory says. "He has been behind me, supporting me in everything I've done."

Ludington returns the compliment. "We are proud of Pam. She has done a wonderful job. Pam has now joined the group of Olympic coaches for life."

Gregory was named developmental coach of the year by U.S. Figure Skating in 1999, 2001 and 2004. Last year, she was a finalist for developmental coach of the year among all U.S. Olympic sports.

She met Scott Gregory, a two-time Olympian in ice dancing and a student of Ludington's. They began dating and were married in May 1995 at her parents' waterfront home in Stevensville.

They live in Newark, Del., with their 7-year-old daughter, Victoria.

Gregory began working with Meissner on her skating strokes when she was an 11-year-old in the juvenile program.

It was not love at first sight.

"They didn't like each other," says Kimmie's mother, Judy Meissner, laughing.

Meissner hated the drudgery, but Gregory says the monotonous routines paid off.

"We hammered away, and as a result she obviously has good fundamentals. If you take away the jumps and spins, she floats across the ice. She has that classic line in her stroke and her body lines," Gregory says.

With her husband, Gregory tapes Meissner's workouts with a super-slow-motion camera to analyze her performance and compare her work to other skaters.

"She's very disciplined and very persistent," says Scott Gregory of his wife. "She keeps working until she gets a kid to do what she wants."

For Pam Gregory, it's the only way to operate.

"I know I have to stay on top of what I'm doing; that's what I mean by responsible. I mean I really have to give her my best. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'I know we can fix this if we just do this,'" Gregory says, smiling at the thought.

But Gregory's focus on Meissner is not absolute.

"My daughter is my first priority, always," Gregory says. "I work only while she's in school, as hard as I can. And then, when she gets out of school, I pick her up, and that's my priority.

"But competitions are really tough. They turn things upside-down for her and I feel really bad about that."

So mother and daughter have a secret code for when the TV cameras turn to Gregory and Meissner in the kiss-and-cry area while they wait for scores.

Touch nose. Make a circle with index finger. Point.

"I-Love-You," says Gregory acting out the three-part message. "It's our little way of communicating."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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