GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN -- Figure skater Ashley Wagner summed it up best: "It's a lot harder than it looks."
She was speaking about her performance at the World Figure Skating Championships, but she could have been the spokeswoman for U.S. teammates Kimmie Meissner and Bebe Liang.
The trio faced the nearly impossible task of protecting the team's three slots for next year's world championships, the last before the 2010 Olympics. But that hope evaporated in a sea of nerves and missed opportunities. Meissner finished seventh, Liang 10th and Wagner 16th. The two best placements had to add up to 13 or less to retain the slots.
"I really wanted to do great, and I did OK," said Meissner, who gave herself a "B-minus" for earning an overall score of 149.74.
Just like last year, a Japanese skater stood atop the podium. But this time, it was Mao Asada, the 2007 runner-up, who won with a score of 185.56. She took a terrific spill on her opening jump - a triple axel - that sent her sprawling on her stomach to the boards. "My heart stopped," she said through a translator.
But she showed no ill effects as she methodically and gracefully checked off the other elements of her long program.
Italy's Carolina Kostner, who won the short program, finished less than a point back at 184.68. Yu-Na Kim reprised her bronze-medal role from last year with a score of 183.23.
Defending champion Miki Ando of Japan withdrew with a muscle strain in her left leg sustained in yesterday morning's practice.
With the pairs and the women's competition done and ice dancing down to the last of its three components, the U.S. team is in danger of missing out on the podium for the first time since 1994.
Only Johnny Weir, a three-time U.S. champion, has a legitimate shot at a medal. But Weir, runner-up at the nationals in January, hasn't done well in the most recent of his four world championship appearances, finishing eighth last year and seventh in 2006.
The other sure-bet medalists in recent years, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, are still paying for Belbin's fall on the first day of the ice dancing competition. During yesterday's original dance, they couldn't make up any ground and are in fifth place overall going into today's free dance. Their combined score of 99.71 is eight points behind the leaders, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France.
"It's the first time here that we've come in as favorites," Belbin said, referring to their nine appearances at worlds. "That's a lot of pressure to carry."
Meissner, too, was under pressure to prove that her disastrous season was behind her. She lost her world title last year and then her U.S. crown in January.
With six weeks to go to worlds, she dropped longtime coach Pam Gregory and moved to Florida to work with Richard Callaghan, who has guided skaters to Olympic, world and national titles.
The move seemed to work during the short program here in which Meissner appeared to enjoy herself and showed none of the timidity that marred earlier performances.
But by falling twice last night, she surrendered a little of that progress. The first fall, on a triple lutz, was caused by a lack of altitude. The second fall, on the triple salchow, was a loss of focus.
"I feel like it was the best I've done all season, even with the mistakes, so that's exciting," said Meissner, 18. "I know I can still come back after hard times."
Wagner, 16, at her first world championships, said she would use the experience to build for next year with her coach, Shirley Hughes of Davidsonville.
"I've had a long season, but it's been a great season," she said. "After this, I want to get back out on the ice."
Meissner wouldn't come right out and say it, but it seems the skater will continue her partnership with Callaghan. And she promised that she will get started on preparation for next season much earlier than last year.
"It's been a really rough season for me," she said. "I just really have to think about everything and come back strong next season."