Meissner may have to leap to defense of world title

Posted: March 20, 2007

BOTH FIGURE SKATING and basketball require a certain amount of jumping, and those who leap the highest tend to be viewed with fawning admiration.

At 5-3, petite high school senior Kimmie Meissner isn't likely to be confused with NBA superstar LeBron James. But then the 6-8 James does not go airborne from an ice surface while wearing thin metal blades on the bottom of his shoes.

And when Meissner comes down after executing one of her signature triple jumps, the possibility always exists that she could take a tumble that would severely reduce her score. Well-executed triples can mean the difference between a gold and a silver medal; poorly executed ones, particularly those that result in falls, can mean the difference between a gold and not placing at all.

"Jumping has always been my strong point," said Meissner, 17, a Bel Air, Md., resident who trains under coach Pam Gregory at the University of Delaware rink.

But when asked whether she would include the especially spectacular - and perilous - triple axel during her free skate at the World Championships on Saturday in Tokyo, the reigning World and U.S. ladies' champion was noncommittal.

Nailing a triple axel is no slam-dunk, and Meissner knows it.

"It's an on-again, off-again thing," Meissner said of the specialty jump she has mostly kept in reserve. "You just never know until that week, or that day. If it's going to be worth it, I'll put it in. But it's very risky. I've got a lot of other triples in, and that's risky enough. It's really a decision I'll have to make that day."

At the 2005 Nationals, Meissner won bronze after becoming the first American female skater since Tonya Harding in 1991 to land a triple axel in competition.

Even without the triple axel, however, Meissner's short and long programs are jump-heavy and have stamped her as the possible heir to her idol, nine-time U.S. and five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, who, at 26, is on hiatus from skating this season. In winning the Worlds on March 25, 2006, in Calgary, Alberta, Meissner successfully landed seven triples, including two triple-triples.

Some saw Meissner's feat as an upset - and it probably was - but when she added the U.S. Championship this January in Spokane, Wash., she immediately was anointed as the Next Big Thing in women's figure skating, the logical successor not only to Kwan, but to such revered American ice princesses as Tenley Albright, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Kristi Yamaguchi.

After winning the nationals and before returning to class at Fallston High School, Meissner - who placed sixth in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy - enjoyed her first real taste of celebrity status. She and her mom, Judy, were flown to New York, where she filmed her first national commercial (she now is a paid endorser for the Subway sandwich chain; apparel maker Under Armour and Visa) and appeared on the "Today" show.

"It was pretty cool," she said of that heady period when she was acclaimed as the queen of the ice-skating universe.

Now, all this level-headed and non-self-involved teenager needs is to take gold again at the Worlds. And maybe a few additional times after that.

"I'd love to win more World titles," Meissner said. "It was great last year. I was really excited. Now that I have won, I'd love to do it again. I'm very competitive.

"And I'd definitely like to have an Olympic gold medal. No matter what, I'm going to be around for the next 4 years."

Matching Kwan's impressive stash of gold medals, accumulated between 1996 and 2005, probably is out of the question, but Meissner believes she can repeat as world champion in Tokyo, and not just because Kwan and Sasha Cohen, an American who was the silver medalist at the 2006 Olympics and bronze medalist at the 2006 Worlds, are taking the year off. A couple of remarkable jumpers, Japan's Mao Asada and Miki Ando, will be skating before a supportive home-nation crowd, and South Korea's Kim Yu-Na also is a factor.

Whom does Meissner see as her primary threat?

"The whole Japanese team is very strong. They have unbelievable jumps," Meissner said. "But I seriously think that my main competition is myself. I want to beat my personal best score. That's my goal. And I feel that I can do that."

Meissner posted a 218.33 to win the Worlds a year ago, in no small part because of her seven triple jumps. But whether she breaks out the triple axel might depend on how she places in Friday's short program.

At the Four Continents Championships last month in Colorado Springs, Colo., Meissner was sixth after a disappointing short program, but was superb in the free skate to top the 24-woman field with a score of 172.75.

If she comes out of the short program in good stead, she might decide to withhold the triple axel from the make-or-break free skate. Or perhaps, if she's in arrears again, she might have to call on her ace-in-the-hole.

Then again, Meissner is so focused as to block out any distractions. She knows what it's like to skate while ahead, or from behind.

"You can't really think about what someone else is going to do," she said. "It's more important what you do." *

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