Kimmie Meissner has taken a shine to a rock climbing wall near her training home in South Florida. She loves to push herself higher as she runs the high school stadium steps after a day on the ice. She finds peace in hoisting herself into the saddle for horseback rides in a neighborhood park.
In each case, she's making it a point to step up - the same direction she hopes to take today at Skate America in Everett, Wash., the first stop on this season's international Grand Prix circuit and what she sees as the beginning of her climb back to the top of figure skating.
Nothing has come easy, but the former world and national champion with the big smile and sunny outlook says she's drawing on those challenges to put more emotion into her performances and more steel in her resolve.
"I feel prepared," she says after taking a test spin on the ice at Comcast Arena. "I personally don't feel any pressure. It would be great to win Skate America again, but I just want to put out two solid programs."
Just nine months after a disastrous showing at U.S. nationals, where she lost her title and finished seventh, Meissner is eager to show off her extreme makeover, still a work in progress. Every aspect of her performance is being adjusted and evaluated by her new coaching team. A stronger foundation is being built under her confidence. Her attitude is getting a boost.
She calls it, with her trademark giggle, "the new and improved Kimmie," a model designed to take her to the Olympics in February 2010.
Meissner, admittedly a homebody, moved from her parents' Bel Air house and rented a two-bedroom apartment about 10 minutes from Incredible Ice, the rink in Coral Springs where she practices. Her first night alone, she called her parents before their plane even touched down at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
"It feels like home," she says of her apartment, then pauses. "But it's not home. Home is Maryland."
She sneaks home some weekends and still finds time to do work for the Cool Kids campaign, which raises money to make pediatric cancer patients more comfortable while being treated.
But the adjustment included a painful parting with longtime coach Pam Gregory and the University of Delaware training center, and making a commitment to new coaches. Richard Callaghan, a veteran of three decades of elite competition, and six-time national champion Todd Eldredge have insisted on a return to basics, including school figures, the precise footwork once a part of Olympic competition.
Meissner recalls those first days in her new surroundings: "It was like Christmas. I rediscovered my love for skating. I thought, 'This is what I started skating for.'"
Callaghan, who guided Tara Lipinski to Olympic gold and was Eldredge's coach his entire career, quickly took stock of his new pupil: "When she first started skating with me, I felt that her skating was quite good. I mean, I was prepared, I had been told that she's gotten too tall, that she's a little bit overweight, she's lost this, lost that … but I thought she looked wonderful. Things weren't consistent, but I saw a lot of good skating."
Callaghan worked on jump technique and mechanics, getting her to use her legs for power and correcting the entrance to Meissner's triple flip, which caused her difficulty last season. To compensate for a lack of flexibility, they have incorporated an extra position in the layback spin to win points.
"But I wouldn't say I'm Gumby-like," Meissner warns with a laugh.
Eldredge has worked on increasing her speed in footwork and spins, and projecting more personality.
On the artistic side, Meissner is working with dance coach Gyula Pandi, a former member of the Hungarian National Ballet, to improve her posture, movement and expression. Her weeks touring with ice shows have helped her connect better with the audience.
Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, who used to train at the University of Delaware and changed coaches last year, understands why Meissner made the move.
"Kimmie was training where I grew up skating under a great technical coach," Weir says. "But to be at Kimmie's level, trying to re-establish herself among these 12-, 13-year-olds, she needs a very established, professional coach to back her. I think it was a smart move to go with Richard Callaghan."
Of her past difficulties, Meissner says: "I'm so over it. There wasn't any moping. I told myself, 'This isn't the worst thing in the world that could happen. I have friends at Cool Kids who have it far worse. I'm alive and healthy. I know I can recover from this.'"
"Kimmie's definitely focused on getting back to the Olympics. She knows she's put herself behind a little bit because of last year, but she knows she's back in the right direction now," he says. "For the start of the season, I'm very happy."
Her short program, which contains three triple jumps, will be performed to "Un Ange Passe," a piano piece by Alain Lefevre. Her long program, with six triples, is set to a Vivaldi concerto and a string trio.
Meissner, who turned 19 this month, tells the story of learning to climb at the gym, but she could easily be talking about turning around her career.
"It took me a long time to work up the nerve to do it. I kept telling myself, 'The rope will hold, the rope will hold,'" she recalls. "Then I just trusted myself and took a leap of faith."
skate america When: Today and tomorrow
Where: Everett, Wash.
Schedule: Today, pairs free skate, 5p.m.; women's short and men's free skate, 10p.m.; tomorrow, women's free skate, 2p.m.
TV: Tomorrow, 4 p.m., chs.11, 4