EVERETT, Wash. - In recent years, Skate America, one of six stops on the annual Grand Prix figure skating circuit, has been held in third-tier cities barely able to attract a respectable-sized crowd. This year, it's in a community of 102,000, a half-hour north of Seattle.
But, funny thing, there's hardly a ticket left at the 8,300-seat Comcast Arena. NBC and Universal Sports will be airing 16 hours, up from two hours last year. There's definitely a sense of anticipation.
The difference? With 15 months to go until the Winter Olympics, this year's edition of Skate America is the table-setter for U.S. figure skaters, especially on the women's side.
A subpar showing at the world championships in Sweden in March cut the number of slots for the 2009 worlds - the last before the Olympics - from three women to two. That makes every competition from now until the U.S. championships crucial.
"Yeah, you definitely start thinking about how you're going to get from here to the Olympics," says Bel Air's Kimmie Meissner, a 2006 Olympian who is looking to regain the form that made her a world and national champion. "But you don't want to think too much about it and get ahead of yourself."
Skaters will be gauging their readiness while coaches will be sizing up the competition and how judges will be scoring performances. At last year's Skate America, skaters and coaches were caught by surprise when jumps and spins were graded strictly by the book.
With three senior Grand Prix seasons on her resume, Meissner will be pushed by a younger generation of skaters, two of whom - Mirai Nagasu, the reigning U.S. champ, and Rachael Flatt, the reigning junior world champ - will be at Skate America.
All three women will perform programs choreographed by Lori Nichol, who designed some of Michelle Kwan's signature performances.
The event has been good for Meissner, who turned 19 this month. She was runner-up in 2006 in Hartford, Conn., and took the gold medal last year in Reading, Pa.
But that victory would end up being the high-water mark in a season during which she finished last of six skaters at the Grand Prix Final and then lost her U.S. title in a meltdown that left her in seventh.
Meissner has changed coaches and training sites, leaving Pam Gregory and the University of Delaware for Richard Callaghan, a veteran of more than three decades, and six-time national champion Todd Eldredge at Incredible Ice in Coral Springs, Fla.
In addition to Nagasu and Flatt, Meissner will be challenged by Korea's Yu-Na Kim, two-time worlds bronze medalist, and Miki Ando, the 2007 world champion who has a quadruple jump in her arsenal.
But others see Skate America as the beginning of a yearlong shakedown cruise to the Olympics.
On the men's side, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir will renew their rivalry. The two tied for first on points at this year's national championship, but Lysacek won by virtue of having a better free skate.
Lysacek is coming back from injuries that forced him out of worlds in March. Weir, who changed coaches before last season, continues to learn a new training system. Ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, 2006 Olympic silver medalists, also switched coaches and locations, opting for IceWorks in Aston, Pa., to work with Olympic champions Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov.
With a Skate America field that includes Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France, the reigning world champions, Belbin and Agosto will quickly see what they're up against.
"I think by the end of the year and going into world championships we'll have programs that if skated well are unbeatable," Belbin said. "Skate America will be the first step."
Where: Everett, Wash.
Schedule: Today, men's and pairs short program, 10 p.m.; tomorrow, pairs free skate, 5 p.m.; ladies short and men's free skate, 10 p.m.; Sunday, ladies' free skate, 2 p.m.
TV: Sunday, 4 p.m., chs. 11, 4