TURIN, Italy -- When she walks into the Olympic Stadium tomorrow night for the closing ceremony, Kimmie Meissner will have something more valuable than her sixth-place finish as a souvenir.
The figure skater from Bel Air has added a line to her resume, one more important than her two podium finishes at the U.S. championships or her silver medal from the junior world championships.
For two nights this week, Meissner sized up the field of elite international skaters, learned about the pressures of media scrutiny and found herself, at age 16, to be just where she had hoped to be.
Next, it's two weeks of practice followed by the world championships in Calgary, Alberta, for another round of seasoning.
"For Kimmie, this is the beginning, not the end," said her coach, Pam Gregory. "Even at worlds this year, she'll be better having skated with these people, the people she watched at the last Olympics."
Meissner said her new checklist includes "getting the triple axel consistent and solid. Also, just really working on the presentation skills and my spins.
"There's lots of places for improvement," she said.
However, she has other things to consider. There's two weeks of school work to make up. A "Champions on Ice" Olympic tour to skate in. Cal Ripken wants to congratulate her. The town fathers of Cheverly have invited her to be grand marshal of its 75th anniversary parade in April.
"Yikes," she said of the Ripken and parade offers. "That's pretty cool."
Yesterday, Meissner was on NBC's Today show, and then faced a "crazy" schedule of interviews, she said. She and her family will fly home Monday, and she'll go back to Fallston High School and the University of Delaware practice rink on Wednesday.
Entering the Olympics, Meissner's senior international experience was limited to just two Grand Prix events this season. Although she qualified last year for the worlds by winning the bronze medal at the nationals, Meissner was not allowed to compete because she was not old enough under international rules.
The experience would have been invaluable at these Winter Games, the skater and coach said.
"I think if I had gone to worlds, it would have helped me. I would have known what to expect," she said. "But now I have Olympic experience, and that counts. It will help me stay calm in pressure-filled situations next year and hopefully in 2010."
Without that foundation, Meissner went into the long program "a little tight," said Gregory. "It was the Olympic experience and being in the final group finally catching up with her. Going early in the short program was a huge blessing in disguise because she went out and did her program, no big deal.
"[In the long program], she went out on the ice with people she's looked up to for years, and it was kind of overwhelming," said Gregory.
She showed up at the rink about an hour before her performance, relaxed in the lounge, stretched and warmed up on the stationary bike. She laced up her skates and went out.
Almost immediately, she was in trouble, stepping out of her triple flip and turning a triple toe loop into a double.
"I didn't give up," Meissner said. "I told myself, 'It's not over yet. My program has a lot more to it than one thing.' "
Although she had a shaky moment or two, she finished with a flourish and a smile.
Afterward, it was mushroom pizza at a small restaurant with her family, the first time she was able to eat with all of them.
"My brothers were so proud of me," Meissner said. "They just kept coming back and saying the same things over and over. It was funny."
Even though she went to the junior worlds last March carrying a sliver of disappointment at the lost opportunity, she got to see in person what few senior athletes have: the emergence of Mao Asada, the 15-year-old Japanese wunderkind who can snap off triple axels the way most teens switch iPod playlists.
When 2010 rolls around, it is likely that skaters such as Meissner, Asada, Georgia's Elene Gedevanishvili and American Emily Hughes, 17, who finished just behind Meissner this week, will replace U.S. icon Michelle Kwan and the top three women here - Japan's Shizuka Arakawa, American Sasha Cohen and Irina Slutskaya of Russia.
"It seems like that," said Meissner. "But it's their decision to make. I think the U.S. is strong with a lot of young skaters coming up."
Gregory likes where her athlete is right now. Always a strong jumper who thrives in the long program, Meissner is beginning to develop the artistic elements of her performance so that it loses its connect-the-dots qualities. Next season, she said she'll need new programs to showcase new skills and maturity.
"I definitely have my work cut out for me," she said. "But [this Olympics] inspires me to make it back so I can try and do better. And also because I had such a great time here. I don't really want to miss it."