Meissner falls, escapes

Kimmie Meissner's short program received a 52.49, including a one-point deduction for a fall during a triple-triple combination.
The thin air and sparse crowd seemed to take the wind out of Kimmie Meissner's sails during her short program last night at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

The reigning world and national champion found herself in sixth place after an underwhelming performance that began with a fall on the front end of a triple-triple jump combination and wobbled into her least favorite spin -- the layback.

The short program is rarely where she shines, so it was not unusual for Meissner to run into trouble. She received a technical score of 26.58, an artistic score of 26.91 and a one-point deduction for the fall for a total of 52.49.

That's nowhere near her personal-best international score of 60.17 that she tallied as part of her gold-medal world championship performance last year. And it will never be mistaken for the 65.69 she scored at the U.S. Championships last month.

"I think I just got a little bit back," Meissner said of her fall, "The hardest thing to save is when you're back."

It was a night of shaky openings that would have given Broadway shivers, with four of the top six stumbling or falling on their first element.

Joannie Rochette, the Canadian champion, stepped out of her first jump, but her command of the remainder of her program more than compensated for the gaffe to give her first place with a score of 56.60.

Nationals runner-up Emily Hughes fell on her opening jump -- a triple flip -- but improvised on her next element, adding a double toe loop to a triple lutz, to regain her momentum. The strategy worked, with Hughes landing in second place with a score of 55.34.

Japan's Aki Sawada, up from the junior level and only the sixth-best skater in her country this year, skated flawlessly and took third place with a score of 55.13.

Alissa Czisny, bronze medalist at Nationals, fell on her opening jump. But her graceful spins and spirals saved her and kept her in fourth place, less than a point behind Sawada.

Wearing a pale blue dress with royal blue trim and flowers, Meissner skated first among the top contenders and had to wait nearly three hours for the performances of the 17 skaters who preceded her.

Looking a little shaken afterward, Meissner said with the early mistakes, "I knew pretty much all of it was over, but I still had the rest of the program to perform."

Skating to "Snow Storm" by Georgy Sviridov, the Bel Air teen gathered herself after the shaky beginning and performed her spins, spirals and footwork as they were meant to be.

The primary objective for the top U.S. skaters at the Four Continents is to get through two injury-free performances.

There is nothing at stake here and little to gain except for more competitive ice time before the world championships in Tokyo next month.

That was brought home yesterday during the pairs long program, when Canadian champion Jessica Dube was struck under the left eye by the blade of her partner, Bryce Davison, during side-by-side flying camel spins.

She fell face forward on the ice sobbing as Davison dropped to his knees to comfort her and signal frantically for help.

Dube was taken from the ice on a stretcher as the audience, coaches and other skaters watched in silent shock. Competition officials said she was recovering at a local hospital. Replays showed Davison had drifted into her path.

Even the surprising U.S. pairs champions, Brooke Castile and Benjamin Okolski, seemed to take a laid-back approach to the event.

"We are just enjoying the moment," Castile said. "It's about the skate, not about the title."

After a seventh-place finish in the short program, they bounced back to finish fourth overall. The performance of two-time world champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao was in a league of its own, an exquisite display of grace and style that allowed the Chinese pair to win by 14.32 points.

All the top Americans agreed to participate hours after the U.S. Championships ended.

Adding Four Continents meant changing long-established training schedules that included a tapering-off period before intense sessions leading up to the worlds.

"We had less than a week to prepare because Kimmie had commitments in New York City," coach Pam Gregory said of Meissner's appearances on the Today show and taping of a Subway TV commercial. "It was more maintaining what she had done before nationals. There was no additional preparation for this competition."

Also weighing on the athletes' minds is the altitude and dry air that can lead to dehydration. Sitting in the shadow of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs has the thin air of a city more than a mile high. Meissner, who is known for her intense cardiovascular workouts, seemed fine.

"She's in great shape," Gregory said. "She got through her long program fine, and I think it was a relief for her to know that wasn't going to be a problem. Mentally, when kids hear 'altitude,' it can do a number on their heads. But that psychological burden for her is gone now."