Olympics

February 05, 2007

One Tough Kid

High schooler Kimmie Meissner hung on to win her first nationals, but can she defend last year's surprise world title?

SHE WASN'T perfect, but 17-year-old Kimmie Meissner made up for it with moxie. Meissner, who shocked figure skating last March by winning the world championship in her first appearance, survived a shaky start to her long program at nationals in Spokane last Saturday to earn her first U.S. title—and prove that she's no one-hit wonder. After botching her opening jump, Meissner could have imploded. But she finished without another major error and landed a triple triple, an element that second-place finisher Emily Hughes didn't have.

Suddenly, with Sasha Cohen focusing on an acting career and Michelle Kwan pursuing a career as a diplomat, Meissner is the fresh face of U.S. skating. A senior at Fallston High School in Bel Air, Md., Meissner has had success at every level, winning the U.S. novice title in 2003 and the junior crown in '04, then becoming the first American woman since Tonya Harding to land a triple Axel in competition, doing so at age 15 while finishing third at the '05 senior nationals. At last year's Turin Olympics, Meissner finished a respectable sixth. It was the sort of orderly progression coaches like to see—one that seemed to herald greatness.

However, when Meissner didn't qualify for the finals of the Grand Prix circuit in December—she was eighth in points—people began to ask if her world championship win was a fluke. (Many ascribed her victory to post-Olympic burnout among the favorites, some of whom did not compete in the event.) The only two times she tried her triple Axel in competition this year, she fell.

In Spokane, Meissner was landing that jump in practice, but not doing so regularly enough for her coach, Pam Gregory, to put it into her program. "She's landing three out of five, but until the triple Axel's as consistent as the rest of her jumps, we'll leave it out," says Gregory. "Our ultimate goal is to have two triple-triple combinations and the triple Axel in the same program."

Meissner may need that entire arsenal to defend her world title in Tokyo in March. Japanese skaters Miko Ando, 19, and Mao Asada, 16, both have beaten Meissner this season, and South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, 16, won the Grand Prix final. All three have giant triple triples and an elegance that Meissner, who doesn't seem to feel her music, has yet to master. Still, Meissner has shown a knack for winning the big events.

"No question the Japanese have the momentum now," says Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion. "But Kimmie's the one American woman with the fireworks to compete with them."

ONLY AT SI.COM Read more from E.M. Swift every week in his Keeping It Real column.

Brian Cazeneuve's Medal Stand

1 Noelle Pikus-Pace is the feel-good story of the year. Pikus-Pace (right) regained the world skeleton title last Friday, 15 months after a runaway bobsled shattered her right leg and nearly ended her career.

2 Skier Julia Mancuso could become the first U.S. woman since Tamara McKinney in 1983 to win the World Cup overall title. After a run of five top-three finishes, Mancuso is third in the standings.

3 At the Boston Indoor Games, Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia outdid countrywoman Meseret Defar in their battle for the title of world's best female distance runner, smashing her own 5,000-meter record.

PHOTOELAINE THOMPSON/AP (MEISSNER)GRACE UNDER FIRE Despite an early blunder, Meissner kept her cool and landed a key triple triple. PHOTOARNO BALZARINI/KEYSTONE/AP (PIKUS-PACE)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)