Kimmie Meissner, 18, the national champion and former world champion, skated a solid, butterfly-free program for a score of 59.24. Her technical and artistic scores led the field, and she enters today's free skate with a cushion of 2.76 points.
"For the first competition out, it's pretty good," said Meissner, of Bel Air.
While Meissner received a standing ovation for her performance, it was Caroline Zhang, the 14-year-old sprite from Brea, Calif., who won the crowd's heart with a nearly flawless routine that contained three triple jumps in the first 45 seconds.
Zhang, in her first senior Grand Prix event, said she was pleased with her performance, but insisted it "could have been a lot better."
Her score of 56.48 put her just .10 behind Japan's Miki Ando, the presumed favorite who deposed Meissner from the world crown in March and beat her at last year's Skate America.
Zhang, the 4-foot-11 world junior champion, said she was in awe of the field when she arrived, noting, "I came here, everybody was really tall and I was wondering if they were going to jump over my head."
Instead, it was Ando, 19, who looked small. She could not land the second triple jump of a two-jump combination and fell hard during the straight-line footwork near the end of the program, something she later called "a stupid mistake."
Ando tried to blame her poor showing on a right-shoulder injury that was prominently bandaged during practice. But she had looked sharp in practice, easily landing all her jumps.
The other U.S. skater, Emily Hughes, 18, is a distant fourth, trailing Zhang by nine points. The judges downgraded her on every jump.
"I didn't think it was that horrible, but ... " she said, her sentence trailing off as she rolled her eyes.
This is Meissner's fifth Grand Prix event and the first in which she is the leader going into the final day of competition.
Wearing a powder blue dress and skating to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins," Meissner looked uncharacteristically relaxed and wore a huge smile and pumped her fist when her routine ended.
She opened with a strong spiral sequence and nailed a triple flip jump. She was downgraded for her layback spin - her nemesis - and straight-line footwork.
"The footwork bugs me because it's different every time when they look at it, so I guess I'll just have to add more turns and stuff. It's already pretty hard, man," she said.
When asked if she envied Zhang's no-expectations entree into the senior elite level, Meissner shook her head slightly.
"I don't know if I envy her. I'm pretty happy with my successes I've had and I'm happy with where I am," she said. "We're at different stages. I'm happy for her. I'm glad she skated well, but I'm also glad I skated well. That's what makes competitions interesting."
In the men's final, Japan's Daisuke Takahasi held on to win the gold despite two falls because of the commanding 12-point lead he built up in the short program. U.S. champion Evan Lysacek was second and Patrick Chan of Canada finished third.
Also yesterday, the grace of four-time Canadian pairs champions Jessica Dube and Bryce Davidson papered over a fall and jump deficiencies to give them the gold medal. China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong finished second, with Vera Bararova and Yuri Larionov of Russia third.
In today's other final, U.S. ice dance champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto will try to protect a 3.75-point lead and hold off the French team of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat in the free skate.