The Bel Air teenager and reigning world champion opened her Grand Prix season last night at Skate America with a third-place finish in the short program, the first of two performances. She earned a score of 58.82, less than two points below her personal best.
"It's always nice to get the first one under your belt," said Meiss- ner, 17, moments after her performance. "It felt so great to be back in front of the crowd. I felt really calm going into it."
Mao Asada, the Japanese teen sensation known for her jumping ability, proved she was more than a one-dimensional performer with a beautifully flowing series of spirals, spins and steps that put her firmly in first place with a score of 68.84 points.
"This is my first time skating my short program at a competition, so I was nervous. So, I'm glad that I skated very well. I felt no pressure about the short program, but still I'm relieved it's over," said Asada, 16, who bested her previous high mark by nearly 4 1/2 points.
Countrywoman Miki Ando, a two-time national champion who finished 15th at the Winter Olympics, skated a solid program and earned 66.74 points, good for second place.
Meissner and Asada haven't competed against each other since the 2005 Junior World Championships, which the Japanese skater won with Meissner finishing just off the podium in fourth place.
Age limits imposed by the International Skating Union prevented Asada from competing at the Olympics in February. But she won the last year's Grand Prix final. Meissner finished sixth at the Winter Olympics and then won the world title.
Meissner's opening jump sequence was shaky as she rushed into the triple lutz, landed stiffly, had to put her hand on the ice to regain her balance and doubled her triple toe loop.
She recovered to land her triple flip, a jump that she had struggled with in practice, and double axel. Judges gave her a 31.70 for technical merit and 27.12 for her artistic components.
Asada received a technical score of 39.40 and an artistic score of 29.44.
U.S. skater Emily Hughes, sister of 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes, finished fifth, with a score of 57.42.
What almost derailed Meissner was not her programs, but her dress - white with blue trim - that she didn't pick up until Tuesday, the day before arriving at the event.
"It was really close. I was getting really nervous that I didn't have a dress, and I'm like, 'I'm going to be skating in my black [practice] pants.' I didn't know what I was going to wear," she said.
Meissner said the outcome of the short program was a good omen for tonight's long program, which includes six triple jumps - two in combination. But it will not include the triple axel, the 3 1/2 -revolution jump she landed at the 2005 U.S. championships. She will skate third out of the top five.
Asada, who will skate first in that group, said she will open her routine with a triple axel.
At a post-competition news conference, a Japanese journalist implied that with Asada and Ando in first and second, Meiss- ner was out of the running for the gold medal.
Meissner looked puzzled and replied: "I don't think it's over. In the long program, a lot can happen. It's still anybody's game."
Standing in the hallway later, a playful Meissner was still amused by her underdog status.
"I'm going to drive home now," she said, smiling. "It's over, right?"
• NOTES // Add Peggy Fleming to the list of athletes wearing one of the red, white and blue "Cool Kids" bracelets designed by Meissner to raise money for pediatric oncology patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland. Fleming, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, is here as a television analyst. "She's so sweet," Fleming, a breast cancer survivor, said of Meissner. "What she is doing is exceptional."