ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In basketball, a 12-point lead can disappear in four trips down the floor.
But Kimmie Meissner isn't on the hardwood, and Mirai Nagasu, the leader going into tonight's long program at the U.S. figure skating championships, vows she can't be rattled.
The defending U.S. champion saw her chances of repeating take a serious hit Thursday night, when three youngsters glided past her in the short program with performances that dazzled the crowd at Xcel Energy Center. Meissner's lead, established near the beginning of the evening, vanished in an hour.
Not that the Bel Air teen put up much of a fight. She fell on the opening jump of her program, a triple flip, but recovered to score 57.58 points, well below her U.S. personal best of 64.67.
After a break for ice resurfacing, Nagasu passed Meissner, then Rachael Flatt and finally Ashley Wagner. When the evening ended, Nagasu had 70.23 points, Wagner was second with 65.15 and Flatt was third with 62.91.
"They did the Zamboni, and all of the sudden everyone was skating better," Meissner, 18, said yesterday morning, back at the rink after a few hours of sleep.
The sprained right ankle, which hobbled her during two of three Grand Prix events last year, is nearly healed, and Meissner looked strong in practice.
She has fought back before.
At Skate America two years ago, Meissner trailed leader Mao Asada by a seemingly insurmountable 10 points after the short program. But she regrouped in the long program, landing six triple jumps to take the silver medal.
Last season at the Four Continents championships, she skated an error-filled short program that left her in sixth place, but she won the competition by hitting five triple jumps, including an opening triple-triple combination in the long program.
In that event, though, the margin to overcome was 4.11, a point less than what separates her from third place here.
Meissner will skate seventh out of the final group of 10 women, ahead of the top three.
If experience could fill the gap, Meissner would be a shoo-in. This is the senior debut for Nagasu, 14, and Wagner, 16, and the second appearance for Flatt, 15. But if Meissner is counting on a case of nerves derailing Nagasu, she might be disappointed. The leader and her coach addressed it directly.
"She had a lot of nerves, but she is learning to make them work for her," Charlene Wong said.
The skater echoed the sentiment. "I'm not going to let first place bother me," Nagasu said with a smile that reinforced a carefree attitude.