Counting on Kimmie

The Baltimore Sun

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Thirteen.

That's the lucky number for U.S. figure skating, the number team officials hope Kimmie Meissner and her two teammates can deliver in March at the world championships in Sweden.

If two of the three skaters place in any combination that adds up to 13 or less, the United States will retain its three slots in women's competition for the 2009 worlds, the event that determines the number of spots each country receives for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But a poor showing by Meissner & Co. would allow the International Skating Union to reduce the number of women skaters at 2009 worlds by at least one, thereby diminishing the chance for Olympic medals.

Before last weekend, the task facing the U.S. women might have seemed fairly simple. In her previous appearances, Meissner won the world championship in 2006, with teammate Sasha Cohen earning third place, and took fourth place last year, with Emily Hughes finishing ninth.

But recently, Meissner, 18, hasn't been her old self. Instead of beating others, she's beating herself.

At the Grand Prix Final in December, the Bel Air skater fell three times in her long program on the way to a last-place showing. And at nationals Saturday night while performing a totally revamped program, the defending champion melted down and looked completely bewildered and near tears. She finished seventh for the worst performance by a reigning women's champion in the past 50 years.

Afterward, Meissner said her problem was mental, not physical, and vowed to fix what's wrong.

"I need to think about what I did here, what went wrong and why, and then fix it," she said.

On one level, it's a relief for U.S. officials to know the ankle sprain that dogged her all season is healed. But repairing her psyche and rebuilding Meissner's confidence in her jumping ability might prove to be a tougher task.

Unfortunately for the U.S. officials, they cannot send their strongest team to worlds. Mirai Nagasu, the new national champion, and runner-up Rachael Flatt are too young to compete under ISU rules, which require athletes to have turned 15 by July 1, 2007. Nagasu, 14, missed the deadline by a mile, but Flatt was just 20 days off.

The same age restriction means fourth-place finisher Caroline Zhang, 14, will be skating with Nagasu and Flatt at junior worlds.

Last year's silver medalist at nationals, Hughes, 19, withdrew from that competition earlier this month, citing a hip injury, and decided against requesting a medical waiver to be placed on the worlds team. Alissa Czisny, 20, who took third place last year, had a worse nationals performance than Meissner.

After reviewing a list of 22 eligible athletes, U.S. officials chose Ashley Wagner, the U.S. bronze medalist, and Bebe Liang, who finished fifth but has an unremarkable international resume. It will be the first exposure for Wagner, 16, and Liang, 19, to skating's most elite field.

So it will fall to Meissner, who fell herself three times Saturday night at the national championships, to attempt to be the worldbeater she has been in the past.

Ron Hershberger, president of U.S. Figure Skating, dismissed concerns that Meissner has a confidence problem and expressed support for the international committee's decision.

"[Meissner] will work diligently to make sure she's ready," he said. "She's a tough competitor."

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