Meissner's Talent Is Taking Shape
Figure Skater, 15, Wants to Be The Next Bright Young Star
By Amy Rosewater
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page D01
NEWARK, Del. -- While sitting in the locker room at her first pro-am competition this past fall, Kimmie Meissner felt more like a groupie than a competitor.
She and her mother, Judy, watched as five-time world champion Michelle Kwan walked by. They saw reigning world silver medalist Sasha Cohen, too. Reigning national champion Johnny Weir, who used to train with Meissner at the University of Delaware, tried to make the Bel Air, Md., teenager feel part of the club, but she still felt like an outsider.
So when Kwan approached her after their first practice and said, "You did pretty good," Meissner could barely muster a response.
"I just kind of looked at her and said, 'Oh, you did good, too,' " Meissner said. "It was kind of funny. Of course, she did good. She's Michelle Kwan."
Of course Meissner knows about Kwan, who will attempt to become the first woman to win her eighth consecutive title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which begin tommorow in Portland, Ore.
But the fact that Kwan knows about Meissner, who won the junior national title last year, is not all that surprising, either. As dominant as Kwan has been, she knows all too well how dangerous young skaters can be. At the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Kwan was deemed the overwhelming favorite, but lost to 15-year-old Tara Lipinski. Four years later in Salt Lake City, it was 16-year-old Sarah Hughes who pulled off the upset.
Now, about a year away from the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, some suspect that Meissner, a sophomore at Fallston High School, just might be the next one to sneak in and steal the show. Meissner might not have the name recognition, but she nearly has a triple axel.
The comparisons to Lipinski and Hughes are a bit overwhelming for Meissner and her coach, Pam Gregory, especially since Meissner got the jitters just by meeting Kwan and will be making her first trip to nationals as a senior-level skater this month.
"I don't really want to compare her," said Gregory, who has coached Meissner for about five years. "Kimmie's on her own path, and it's a good path."
Meissner doesn't have the competition experience that Lipinski and Hughes had leading up to their Olympic experience. Lipinski had skated in two world championships, winning the 1997 title, and Hughes had competed in three, winning a bronze medal in 2001. Even if Meissner wins a medal in Portland, she will be ineligible to compete at the world championships in Moscow in March because of her age. Meissner, who turned 15 on Oct. 4, missed the cutoff date by about three months. (The rules have changed since Lipinski won the world title at 14.) Meissner will be age-eligible to compete in the 2006 Olympics, should she qualify.
"It's frustrating," Gregory said of the age rules for worlds. "It's especially frustrating because Tara Lipinski had that experience and that experience probably helped her win the gold medal. But the good thing for Kimmie is that at least she is getting to skate at competitions where she can skate against that caliber of competition."
What makes Meissner so interesting is that even though she's new to the elite scene, she has the technical prowess and a competitive spirit to compete with the big names.
At a practice just before Christmas, Meissner spent nearly all of one 40-minute session working solely on triple axels, the most difficult jump ever landed by a woman. Meissner came close to landing one in competition this season, touching her hand on the ice at the landing. During this particular practice, she landed some with just a slight turn on the landing.
Meissner and a friend, Shaun Rogers, a Millersville, Md., native who also will compete at nationals, were making friendly wagers. He was attempting quads; she was trying the triple axel. Usually, they end up betting for sandwiches or coffee.
At the beginning of the season, Meissner was landing triple axels in practice relatively well, usually with a slightly cheated landing. Then she tweaked a back muscle and had to stop; she has resumed working on them again only recently. Gregory said that they won't decide until the competition whether Meissner will attempt one in the long program. Almost assuredly, Meissner will attempt them in practices at nationals to showcase her potential to the judges.
"She wants to do it, big time," Gregory said. "She knows that in her era of skating she's going to have to do them. She doesn't want to hold back."
If Meissner opts against doing the triple axel at nationals, she still plans to attempt a triple lutz-triple toe loop, one of the most difficult triple-triple combinations for female skaters.
Although Meissner said the triple axel is something she would like to do in competition -- the only American to do so was Tonya Harding in 1991 -- she doesn't want the jump to be her trademark.
"I don't think the triple axel is everything," Meissner said. "I don't want people to miss my other stuff."
To augment her routines, Gregory enlisted choreographer Lori Nichol to design Meissner's long program. Nichol has worked with many of the sport's top skaters but is most known for her help in transforming Kwan from a skinny 13-year-old into a mature artist. Perhaps even more importantly, Nichol also has worked closely with the International Skating Union's new scoring system and can make sure that Meissner maximizes her points at international events.
"I encouraged the Meissners to use Lori," Gregory said. "I wanted something fresh and she's a big player with the new system. I'm just learning about it. I didn't want Kimmie to be my guinea pig."
Nichol was enthusiastic about working with Meissner, mostly because she hasn't worked with a young skater since her days with Kwan. Nichol wanted to work with a skater at the developmental phase again.
"Kimmie is a phenomenal talent to go this far this fast," Nichol said. "I believe in her very much."
What can't be taught is competitive fire, but Meissner has plenty of that. Even if Meissner is not having solid practices, she somehow finds a way to rise to the occasion. At the Junior Grand Prix Final last month in Helsinki, Meissner was considered a top contender but she missed her combination jump and was seventh (out of nine) in the short program. She pulled herself together in the long program and wound up with the bronze medal.
"She always keeps her grace about her," Gregory said. "And if things don't go well, it's not going to be a big trauma."