Tokyo -- Going into today's long program at the World Figure Skating Championships, Kimmie Meissner finds herself in a familiar spot: behind.
Last year, she used the long program to make up a 5 1/2 -point deficit and springboard from fifth place to the top of the podium.
This year, she starts one spot closer to the leader but needs to make up a gap of 7.28 points on leader Yu Na Kim of South Korea, who looked unbeatable in a flawless and fluid short program.
Between them are two women who, in addition to Bel Air's Meissner and Kim, also set personal bests in the short program.
Japan's Miki Ando is a seasoned performer playing in front of her home crowd. She has something to prove after her 15th-place finish at the 2006 Olympics and would dearly love to replace the gold-medal winner and countrywoman Shizuka Arakawa in the hearts of fans.
Carolina Kostner of Italy, the European champion, is a surprise here. Although she won the bronze medal at the 2005 worlds, she finished ninth at the Olympics.
And then there are the women right behind Meissner.
Mao Asada, the darling of Japan, had just one problem area in her short program. She couldn't cleanly exit the front half of a triple jump combination and popped out of the second jump. Just 3.35 points separate her from the defending champion.
Then, in sixth, another half-point back, there's U.S. teammate Emily Hughes, who never seems to give up and fights for every element.
Anything seems possible after a night when six of the top 10 women bettered their top performances.
In earning a score of 64.67, Meissner shook a case of the jitters and landed jumps that bedeviled her this week.
"A personal best, so I'm excited," she said.
But it was the performance of Kim that had everyone reaching for superlatives and the record books. The teen sensation showed no effects of a nagging back injury in leading the competition, making the Tokyo Municipal Gymnasium her playground on her way to a score of 71.95.
South Korea has never won a medal at worlds.
In the five-year history of the new scoring system, only two other women have exceeded 70 points - Irina Slutskaya's 72.20 at Cup of China in 2005 and Sasha Cohen's 72.12 at Skate America in 2003.
"I was surprised at the high score," said Kim, winner of this year's Grand Prix final and the 2006 junior world champion. "I still had back pain at the beginning of this championship, but it gradually went away and now I feel OK."
That's bad news for the top skaters, whose performances, under any other circumstances, would be the talk of the skating world.
But Meissner embraces her long program, with its seven triple jumps, like family. And sitting just off the lead is something she finds oddly comforting.
"I'm not really disappointed. I'd like to be ahead, but it's better for me sometimes to be this way coming after the short," she said. "I have a lot of confidence, especially coming off this program with my new personal best."
The last time U.S. women failed to medal at worlds was 1994.
During warm-ups yesterday, Meissner fell on the triple lutz, the front part of a two-jump combination, then skated through traffic until she could find the space to try - and land - a clean one.
"I was a little bit nervous tonight. The short program, as always, is a little bit nerve-racking for me. So I was super excited to hit that triple combination and the to finish the rest of the program solidly, I felt really good and I feel a lot better."