It's not nice to upstage the woman of the hour, the legend hell-bent on reeling in that other legend, the skater all the screaming fans had come to see. But that's exactly what happened last Saturday night in Portland's Rose Garden arena at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where 15-year-old Kimmie Meissner earned the loudest roar of the competition and stole some of the spotlight from Michelle Kwan's stage. ¬∂ No, the Baltimore-born Meissner, a wisp full o' will, didn't knock off the redoubtable Kwan, who won her eighth straight U.S. title and ninth overall, tying her with the great Maribel Vinson Owen (1928-37) for the most U.S. championships. Meissner did, however, breathe fresh air into a sport that had begun to stagnate in the U.S. and offer a peek into the future of American skating by becoming the first U.S. woman in 14 years to land a triple Axel in competition. The last to do so? Portland's own Tonya Harding, before she moved on to a life of boxing and temporary restraining orders. When asked what she remembered about Harding, who was banned from U.S. skating for her role in the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the 5-foot Meissner, who was one year old the last time a U.S. woman even attempted a triple Axel in competition (and who will be too young to compete in this year's world championships), blushed and stammered and finally said, "I pretty much just remember the scandal."
That's pretty much what everyone remembers. But Harding could jump and she had moxie, attributes of which U.S. skating could now use a healthy dose. The Kwan era has been one of nice, safe, clean skating--not exactly the stuff of riveting theater. Nor of riveting sport.
At 24, with a record 12 medals at the nationals, Kwan is the Cal Ripken of figure skating--consistent, durable and beloved. Her lack of an Olympic gold medal aside, there's no disputing her performance under pressure. But she's a careful champion, not inclined to take risks and never pushing the envelope of her sport. For years she's been working on a triple-triple--a combination jump that Kerrigan and Kristi Yamaguchi were landing in the early 1990s. But Kwan has resisted attempting it in competition because, except in those rare instances when a young, fearless Tara Lipinski or Sarah Hughes was hitting on all cylinders, she hasn't needed it to win. By being so cautious, Kwan has held back skating in the U.S. because most youngsters tend to follow the lead of reigning champions. The result is that American skating has been surpassed on the world stage by that of Russia and Japan, whose top performers routinely land quadruple jumps and triple Axels.
The new scoring system, called the code of points, which puts greater emphasis on levels of difficulty, might help. These nationals were the last in the U.S. to be held under the 6.0 system, and the judges celebrated by doling out these once-treasured emblems of perfection like sale-bin items at Kmart. Come and get 'em! Two for one!
Ice dancers Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who train in Canton, Mich., got 14 6.0s in Portland, for example--more than Brian Boitano received at nationals in his entire nine-year career. They were nine for nine in 6.0s for presentation in their free dance, which, while polished, will never make anyone forget Torvill and Dean. It was the first time any competitor or team had been given nine 6.0s by a panel at the nationals. (In March, Belbin and Agosto will have a good chance to become the first U.S. ice dancers in 20 years to win a medal at the world championships, but because Belbin, who's Canadian, probably won't get her U.S. citizenship until 2007, this promising young couple likely won't be able to compete at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.)
Johnny Weir, the elegant stylist who won his second straight men's national title, was awarded five 6.0s for presentation for his free skate even though he slipped noticeably during his straight-line footwork.
Then there was Kwan, who was awarded seven 6.0s over the weekend, so her record now stands at 57 6.0s in competition, 42 of which have come at the nationals. Never mind that the final four 6.0s were given for her flawed Bolero long program, in which she doubled a planned triple Lutz, never attempted a loop jump and finished skating several seconds after her music had stopped--a sign that she was behind the distinctive beat. Not that the crowd noticed. They would have given Kwan perfect scores for eating a cup of yogurt. "It was not my best performance," she admitted, "but I had a lot of fun."
And why not? The U.S. championships are her venue, her theater, her set on which to shine. Kwan owns them. "I'm going to be sad when the 6.0 system goes," she said.
Lurking in the shadows, Kimmie Meissner won't be. This young, gutty star should be grinning ear to ear.