Meissner figures odds just right

The Baltimore Sun

Add steely nerved gambler to the list of words that can be used to define Kimmie Meissner.

The Bel Air figure skater ditched her long program this fall, weeks before the start of the new season, betting that she could learn a more eye-catching routine in time to defend her national title in January and re-establish herself at the world championships in March.

She did better than that.

Despite some expected rocky moments at both Grand Prix events, Meissner finds herself competing tomorrow and Saturday at a competition that had eluded her: the Grand Prix Final.

The Final, which follows the six-event Grand Prix series, pits the top six skaters in each discipline against each other for the overall title.

Since its beginning in 1996, the Final has not been especially kind to American skaters. No U.S. pairs team has reached the podium, men have never won gold, and no woman has won a medal since Sasha Cohen was runner-up in 2004. Even the acclaimed ice dance team of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto has found the gold beyond its reach.

This year is different. U.S. skaters have qualified in the four disciplines and earned six of 24 qualifying spots overall.

By winning Skate America and taking the silver medal at Trophee Eric Bompard, Meissner compiled enough points to finish third in the women's standings and earn an invitation to Turin, Italy, the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

"I'm really excited," said Meissner, 18. "It's nice to go back to where the Olympics were held."

Meissner is unlikely to duplicate her sixth-place Olympic finish, but the ice to the Final podium is especially slippery. Ahead of Meissner in points are two skaters who won both of their events and are being talked about for the 2010 Olympics: Yu-Na Kim of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan.

This season, Kim, 17, has been stunning, erasing almost all of the memories of the final minutes of her performance at the world championships in March, when, with victory nearly in her grasp, she faltered and finished third, one place ahead of defending champion Meissner. At last year's Final, she beat Asada, who won silver.

Like Kim, Asada combines athletic jumps with fluid spins and spirals. At age 17, she has dominated the Grand Prix circuit over the past three seasons, winning medals in each of her six events, including four golds.

Rounding out the Grand Prix field are American Caroline Zhang, 14; Italy's Carolina Kostner, 20; and Japan's Yukari Nakano, 22.

At Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris last month, the silver medal around Meissner's neck could not hide the disappointment on her face. Limited practice on her new long program showed when she fell once and bailed out of another jump. Judges also downgraded two other jumps for under-rotation.

In preparation for the Grand Prix Final, Meissner visited her Toronto choreographer, Lori Nichol, for a tuneup and postponed preparations for final exams this week at the University of Delaware, where she is a freshman.

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