Falling hard

Defending champion Kimmie Meissner hits the ice on one of her three falls during her long program. She finished seventh.
Defending champion Kimmie Meissner hits the ice on one of her three falls during her long program. She finished seventh. (Jeff Wheeler/MCT)
Kimmie Meissner looked nothing like the young woman who rocketed to the top of the figure skating world two years ago.

Less than a minute into her long program at the national championships last night, the defending champion and former world-title holder had fallen twice and looked ready to cry. She fell once more before her four-minute program mercifully ended.

Meissner, 18, finished seventh in a field of 20 women. It is the first time in a decade that an active champion did not repeat.

"That's a bummer. That's all I can say," the dejected skater said. "It's such a shame. ... I was pretty confident going into this, but I just lost it."

But Meissner will represent the United States on the team going to the world championships in March.

Making her debut at the senior level, Mirai Nagasu, 14, made just one mistake - a fall near the beginning of her program - to win and become the second-youngest U.S. champion. The fall, she said, "was like a kick in the butt. After that, I was like, 'Attack.'"

Nagasu, of Arcadia, Calif., was last year's junior national champion and runner-up at the junior world championships. Only Tara Lipinski, who was 14 in 1997, was younger when she won the U.S. national title.

Rachael Flatt, 15, was second last night, and Ashley Wagner, 16, finished third.

After a Grand Prix season in which she battled an ankle injury, growing pains and questions about her future, Meiss- ner, of Bel Air, changed her long program, hoping for a clean start. It was the second major adjustment of the season.

But the strategy didn't work. A flawed short program Thursday night coupled with inspired performances from the trio of younger skaters left Meissner in fourth place going into the free skate. She was slightly more than four points behind Wagner, but more than 12 points behind the leader, Nagasu.

Meissner refused to play it safe, attempting a performance loaded with seven triple jumps, four of them in combination.

Skating to "Nessun Dorma," Luciano Pavarotti's signature song, and draped in an elegant pale pink dress, she couldn't control the two jumps she had to have -the triple flip and triple lutz.

Meissner said her problems were "more mental" than physical. The ankle, she said, "didn't affect me at all. I have no excuses."

The top two finishers last night - Nagasu and Flatt - are age-ineligible to compete in the world championships in March under International Skating Union rules, so Meissner and Bebe Liang, who finished fifth, along with Wagner, 16, will compete.

"I need to think about what I did here, what went wrong and why and then fix it," Meissner said.

Locally connected
Ellicott City's Megan Williams-Stewart, at her fourth senior nationals, finished 13th.

Her score of 130 came up just shy of her personal best of 134.19, set two months ago at Eastern Sectionals.

The right steps
Calling it their best performance of the season, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won their fifth consecutive ice dancing title by 9.75 points.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White finished second.

Great pairs
Just two years into their partnership, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubacker won the senior national pairs championship. The two won the junior title last year.

"As I skated backwards and saw the people clapping and the lights, it's definitely something I'll never forget," Brubaker said.

John Baldwin and Rena Inoue skated last and finished second, but yesterday's performance had a diamond quality to it. As they stood at center ice bowing to the crowd, Baldwin dropped to one knee and proposed. Inoue eventually said yes.

Some history
The last time nationals were held in the Twin Cities, Todd Eldredge won and Paul Wylie was the bronze medalist with Christopher Bowman runner-up.

On the women's side, Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan finished 2-3 behind Tonya Harding. Eldredge, Wylie were inducted Friday night into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Yamaguchi (Class of 1998) and Kerrigan (Class of 2004) are here as TV commentators.

Bowman, who died earlier this month, was the subject of video tribute and moment of silence before competition began.

And Harding, who did not receive an engraved invitation despite her contribution to boosting the sport's popularity, remains a legend in her own right


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