Meissner clinches world skating title


CALGARY, Alberta -- Her smile stretched from one end of the rink to the other, and hundreds of young girls excitedly shrieked her name: "Kimmie! Kimmie!" The screams bounced off the rafters.

Bel Air's ice princess, 16-year-old figure skater Kimmie Meissner, took her place atop a new throne yesterday. With a flawless performance in the long program, Meissner captured first place at the World Figure Skating Championships, sending shock waves across the skating community and surprising even the young skater.

"It blew the rest of my programs out of the water," she said. "That was definitely the best that I could have done."

Meissner, who finished sixth at last month's Winter Olympics, was competing in her first world championships. This is her first year skating on the senior circuit; she was too young to compete a year ago.

Skating to "Belkis, Queen of Sheba," Meissner zipped playfully across the ice, spinning and hopping with ease, and then flying through the air with grace. She landed seven triple jumps, the most of any skater in the competition.

Meissner scored a personal best of 129.70 in the free skate, giving her a total score of 218.33. The mark was nearly nine points ahead of silver medalist Fumie Suguri of Japan and nearly 10 ahead of fellow American Sasha Cohen, the favorite heading into the competition, who ended up with bronze.

When her music finished playing, Meissner shot her hands into the air, shut her eyes and let out a shriek. Tears were running down the cheeks of her coach, Pam Gregory, and her mother, Judy Meissner, finally stopped her nervous pacing. The energy from the ice struck Judy Meissner high up in the cheap seats.

"She's just 16. I don't think we came in here thinking about the gold," said the skater's mother. "I wasn't realistically thinking about anything like this. I'm just so overwhelmed right now."

The win not only legitimizes Meissner as a top skater on the senior circuit; she also inherits a cherished spot in American sport. With Michelle Kwan, the most decorated skater in American history, expected to walk away from the ice, U.S. figure skating has been looking for someone to carry its torch into the 2010 Olympics.

The junior at Fallston High has a busy schedule before she returns to class this week and turns her attention to classwork and the school's prom. Today includes a series of television interviews, starting with Good Morning America, set to air shortly after 7 a.m. A driver was to pick her up at 4:45 a.m., officially beginning her first full day as world champion.

Meissner also is scheduled to skate in today's gala exhibition, which draws this year's world championships to a close. She's expected to return to Bel Air tomorrow.

In Bel Air, news of the win reignited a bit of the Kimmie fever that swept the Harford County community during her recent Olympic appearances.

"I knew she could do it! I'm beyond words. She deserves it," said Richard Lynch, owner of Buontempo Brothers Italian Restaurant in Bel Air, where the Meissner family has eaten regularly for more than a decade. He was watching the competition on television while at work.

Susan Strickroth, youth minister at St. Ignatius Church in Bel Air, which the Meissners attend, didn't know Meissner was competing until she was told by a reporter that the skater had won.

"Oh, my gosh, how exciting! How wonderful!" she said. "To have somebody right from Bel Air could perform so well, it's a big thing for Bel Air."

Said the Rev. James Barker, pastor of the church, where Meissner has signed autographs after Sunday services: "It's wonderful. The parish is going to be very proud."

Her run to the top of the podium began in earnest earlier in the week, when Meissner managed a third-place finish in the qualifying round. Then, after Friday's short program, she stood comfortably in third place, within distance of a gold medal.

Because she was one of the top six skaters after the short, Meissner skated in the final group yesterday. She paced backstage as Cohen hit the ice.

"At the Olympics, I was little tense," Meissner said. "I don't know if it was because it was the Olympics or what, [but] warming up today, I was taking my time."

Cohen, who has a history of falling from the lead position on the last day of competition, struggled, failing to cleanly land most of her jumps and falling on one. Meissner stepped into the rink and for the next four minutes and nine seconds skated as she never had.

Regarded as one of the sport's top leapers, Meissner loaded her long program with difficult jumps. She made a triple flip-triple toe-loop combination out of the gate, setting the pace for the rest of her program.

"When I hit my first jump, I was like, 'I can do it,'" she said.

Meissner completed six more triples and then closed with a double-double-double combination. Backstage, behind a curtain, a disappointed Cohen watched the end of Meissner's performance.

"I think she skated really, really well," Cohen, who won silver at the Olympics, said later. "Two triple-triples is a really strong program, and she deserves to be first today."

The final notes of Meissner's music were drowned out by the roaring crowd. The skater was so overcome with emotion that she raced to the side of the rink and embraced two young girls, neither of whom she knew. The girls handed Meissner a pair of stuffed animals that she was still clutching tightly when she met with reporters several minutes later.

When Meissner exited the ice, her face was as red as her dress. When she saw her coach, she mouthed, "Oh, my God," and the two tearfully embraced.

"The whole time I was thinking it would be great for a medal," Gregory said. "I didn't know about first. I didn't know what kind of marks they would give her. But then when the marks came out, I started thinking, 'Those look like championship marks to me.'"

A little more than a month ago, Meissner stepped onto the Olympic ice, hoping for a top-10 finish. She managed that and had high hopes for these world championships. But she returned to Maryland from Italy with cold symptoms and suffered a ruptured eardrum that disrupted her training for nearly two weeks.

Meissner said she never considered missing the competition.

"It feels great," Meissner said. "It's always nice after a program to feel like that's everything I had, and there's nothing I could have done to make it better."

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