Meissner puts spin on expectations

The defending world champ may be seen as the underdog in Tokyo.

Posted: March 20, 2007

NEWARK, Del. - The photos, newspaper clippings and colorful banners hung throughout the University of Delaware Ice Arena proudly cited the 2006 world championship won by Kimmie Meissner, the rink's signature skater.

On the ice one afternoon earlier this month, the Maryland teenager's poise and athleticism loudly proclaimed the talent that won her that title last March. TV cameras recording the practice session captured every graceful salchow, axel and hand gesture. Figure-skating moms and their awestruck children watched raptly.

Yet as much as she looked the part of confident world champion, Meissner didn't necessarily sound like one during an interview session earlier that day.

Talking about defending her title in the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships, which begin today in Tokyo, Meissner, typically as competitive as she is personable, appeared to have discounted her goals.

Over and over, she said she just wanted "to do my best" and continually referenced the pressure she expected to feel fending off three talented Asian challengers.

"I have my normal goal," Meissner said. "I want to end the season on a high note and two strong programs. . . . It's hard to get to the top. But it's even harder to stay there."

While Meissner's on-ice strategy in Tokyo will be to display more artistic touches to her jumping and skating skills, psychologically, she and coach Pam Gregory seem eager to assume an underdog's role.

Gregory, in fact, nearly made it sound as if the world championship Meissner won in Calgary was something of a fluke.

"Kimmie skated out of her mind that day and that's why she won," Gregory said. "If she skates two strong performances [this week], she'll be in the mix."

The mix on what appears to be a wide-open men's side could include Coatesville native Johnny Weir, whose run of four straight national titles was ended in January by Evan Lysacek. Weir will be looking for his first medal in his fourth world event. The men's short programs are Thursday.

American ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, the Olympic silver medalists, will be among the favorites in that competition. The Chinese duo of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, meanwhile, is the heavy favorite in the pairs.

But among the women, whose short programs are set for Friday, Meissner has reason to expect a formidable challenge. Several of her rivals have been skating better in recent months. And the crowd at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium will be pulsating with a nationalistic fervor for Mao Asada and Miki Ando.

Asada, the 16-year-old wunderkind, established a world-best total under the sport's new scoring system, with a 199.52 in winning the NHK Trophy. She did better than that in capturing Japan's national title, though scores in one's home country don't qualify for international records.

South Korean Kim Yu-na, another 16-year-old who beat Asada in last year's world juniors, won the 2006 Grand Prix final, but has been bothered recently by back problems.

Asada's countrywoman, Ando, won at Skate America in Hartford, Conn., and has far more international experience than all of her main competitors.

Since winning at worlds, Meissner didn't qualify for the Grand Prix final, stumbling in both her long program at nationals and in her short at Four Continents.

She is hoping that the Tokyo crowd's expectations will provide her competitors with a little of the same pressure she'll be experiencing.

"There will be some pressure on me because I am the reigning world champion, but also a lot of it will be on the Japanese girls," she said. "When you're in your home country, you want to skate well. There will be a lot of attention on them."

Meissner competed there in 2005 and knows how intensely the Japanese media can scrutinize their star athletes.

"We never saw so many cameras," Gregory said. "You can just hear the clicking every time she skated by. I just think it's going to be huge pressure for the Japanese skaters."

Meissner still hasn't said whether she'll pull her triple axel out of storage. She became just the second American woman to land one in competition in 2005, but hasn't attempted one since.

"If it's going to be worth it, I'll put it in," she said. "It's so many points, but it's so risky."

Asked what else she's been working on at practice, Meissner answered "artistry."

After her national title, U.S. judges told the 17-year-old high school senior that was what she needed.

"They'd like her not to look so mechanical," Gregory said. "At a world level, you have to have it all."

Lysacek, meanwhile, finally landed a quad at the U.S. championships, a jump that could thrust him to his first world title. He finished third at the last two world championships.

"There's usually one or two guys at the top," he said. "Pretty much it's been one, Lambiel in 2005 and Lambiel and Joubert last year," Lysacek said of Switzerland's Stephane Lambiel and France's Brian Joubert. "Now there's probably six or seven of us that are doing quads. It's going to be a more fair competition. It's going to be who skates the best, who puts it on the line that night."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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