World champion seeks 1st U.S. crown

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There’s a well-worn path figure skaters take to the top of their sport. They climb the ranks in their own country, win a national title, then claim the world championship.

Kimmie Meissner is blazing her own trail.

The 17-year-old American skipped the national title and went straight for the worlds, winning her first crown last March.

It’s the first time since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1991 that a woman has won the worlds before having a senior national title.

“I decided to change things up and do it the other way around,” Meissner said, laughing. “Last year was a whirlwind with everything going on. Making the Olympics was huge for me. Winning worlds after was just the cherry on top.”

She’ll get a chance to fill in that gap on her resume this week. With Sasha Cohen taking a break to focus on her acting career and Michelle Kwan’s future up in the air after hip surgery and a dozen years at the top of the sport, Meissner is the overwhelming favorite at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Wash.

Competition starts Tuesday with the original and compulsory dances. The men’s and women’s short programs are Thursday, with the free skates Saturday.

That Meissner is the latest American star is hardly a surprise. She established herself as one to watch in 2003, when she won the U.S. novice title at 13.

She added the junior crown the following year, and caused a stir at her first senior nationals by landing a triple axel, only the second American woman to pull off the difficult trick.

With Kwan and Cohen in front of her, though, Meissner wasn’t expected to grab the spotlight so soon. Her big moment was supposed to come at the Vancouver Games in 2010, not a mere month after the Turin Olympics, where she finished sixth.

But she pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever at the worlds with a sensational free program that featured two triple-triple combinations. A personal-best 129.70 points put her ahead of Japanese veteran Fumie Suguri and Cohen.

“Winning worlds last year was a big shock,” Meissner said. “Last year really was my first year as a full-fledged senior. Everything came on really suddenly.”

And not just on the ice. Meissner was invited to the ESPYs, where she took a picture with Lance Armstrong, one of her idols. She threw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game and designed bracelets for the Cool Kids Campaign, a charity that helps pediatric cancer patients and their families.

When the new phonebook in her hometown of Bel Air, Md., came out, guess who was on the cover?

“I get home and I’m looking at it, it’s my picture on it on the very cover!” she said. “I’m like, “OK.’ Now when I go to find a number in it, I have to look at myself first.”

If anyone can take sudden celebrity in stride, though, it’s Meissner.

When she graduated from the public session at the local rink to private lessons at the University of Delaware, her parents were determined their daughter was going to have a “normal” life. She would live at home and commute an hour each way to the rink. She would go to a regular school, even if it was only for a few classes.

And no matter how many titles she won, she was still going to take out the garbage and do chores like her three older brothers.

“There were always some challenges,” said her mother, Judy Meissner. “I think it helped her in the long run because she was able to keep those two lives separate. She didn’t have to live up there and be around it 24 hours a day and be around the rink 24 hours a day. The downside was she wasn’t training as much as the other kids do.”

Meissner is one of the best in the world technically, with good position in the air on her jumps and smooth landings. She’s got great speed, and her energy is clear to anyone who watches her.

The drawback has been her artistry – not uncommon for a teenager. But Meissner has been focusing on it this season and hopes the hard work will show at nationals.

“I’ve been really trying to work on my presentation so when you watch me it’s not, ‘Oh, her jumps were really good,’ but, ‘that was a great performance,”‘ she said.

Meissner didn’t have a great Grand Prix season, missing the final after finishing second at Skate America and stumbling to third at Trophee Eric Bompard. But after such a hectic spring and summer, a break in her schedule wasn’t all bad.

She had time to fine-tune her programs. She also put in more work on that artistry, getting some tips from her aunt, a former flamenco dancer. Meissner’s long program this year is a flamenco number.

Though she knows expectations are higher now that’s she the world champion, Meissner said she’s not feeling the pressure.

“I hope people realize she’s still just developing, she’s still just finding her way in the sport and finding how to deal with it all,” Judy Meissner said. “That part of it concerns me a little bit. She’s still just 17.

“I’ve talked to Kimmie about it, and she realizes you just … go out and do your thing like you’ve always done.”

AP-ES-01-21-07 1428EST

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