Off ice, Meissner doesn't skate around questions

The contrast could not have been more stark.

In a practice with top-secret Pentagon overtones, Sasha Cohen worked out behind locked doors yesterday and then slipped out a side door without talking to reporters.

Kimmie Meissner followed with a loose and open practice, then held a lighthearted "State of the Skate" news conference about sightseeing, homework and the triple axel.

"To have this happen is a pretty nice gift or reward for training all those days," Meissner, 16, said of her Olympic opportunity. "It's just been really neat."

Cohen, 21, the U.S. champion, and Meissner, the runner-up from Bel Air, set up camp in this ski resort town two hours outside Turin to reset their body clocks and get back to a regular practice routine.

No one got the opportunity to evaluate Cohen's strategy. After her 45-minute practice, she went out one door as reporters were led through another. When a lagging reporter greeted Cohen, she responded with a tight-lipped "hello."

Meanwhile, the third member of the U.S. women's team - Emily Hughes - arrived in Turin yesterday. Hughes finished third at the U.S. championships last month but was bumped from the team when Michelle Kwan successfully petitioned for a medical waiver. When Kwan was hurt earlier this week, Hughes, 17, was named to the team.

"I was excited for Emily because I had that same feeling just a few weeks ago, when I made the team," Meissner said. "I'm definitely excited that she's here. I think it's great that she earned it."

The three women are expected to return to Turin over the weekend and practice on the Olympic ice Monday before Tuesday night's short program. The long program is Thursday night.

Meissner warmed up to "A Little Help From My Friends," then moved through elements of her long program, skated to "Queen of Sheba."

With coach Pam Gregory watching, she landed numerous triple-jump combinations and worked on her spins.

She ended with a big smile and Gregory's lone applause echoing off the walls.

"Every day, she's getting better and better, gaining more confidence" Gregory said.

The triple axel, both said emphatically, will not be part of Meissner's long program, not even as a last-minute gamble to improve her standing, as it was at the 2005 U.S. championships.

Meissner tried a few since arriving in Italy and found them to be "too risky."

"I have some jumps that are just as risky, and I'm concentrating on them. I'm more consistent with them," she said.

Asked if she felt isolated from the Olympic experience, Meiss- ner took on a tone of mock outrage: "I definitely feel part of the Olympics. I've got the gear on."

The skater, her mother, Judy, and Gregory took time out for some shopping in Chamonix, France, where Meissner bought a sweater and sampled cheese fondue.

She tried a little French, which she is studying at Fallston High School, but found that though she could read signs, she couldn't converse with the locals.

Homework is an afterthought right now, she misses her cat, Ozzie, and begged her father and three brothers to bring empty suitcases to Turin this weekend to haul back all her Olympic gear.

She is confident that her chances are as high as the Alps that surround this tiny ski resort.

"If you're training well, anything can happen," she said. "Definitely anything's possible right now."


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