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Coach says, "don't count Kimmie out"

Meissner still has a few tricks up her sleeve

Kimmie Meissner with her coach Pam Gregory.
Kimmie Meissner with her coach Pam Gregory. (Taffy Holliday)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/15/2008) - Kimmie Meissner's camp has a message: despite disappointing performances at the Grand Prix Final, she's fit and ready to repeat as U.S. champion in Saint Paul, Minn. next week.

At University of Delaware's annual U.S. Championships' send-off exhibition last Saturday, Meissner chatted with friends, signed autographs and posed for pictures. The self-proclaimed Beatles' maniac reeled off a new exhibition program, choreographed by Nathan Birch to John Lennon's "Imagine." She even took an encore, showing off her newly perfected triple flip-triple loop combination to an appreciative crowd.

What she didn't do was talk to the press.

"There's really nothing to say," the 18-year-old said, politely declining all questions as she turned back to her fans.

"Kimmie is skating really well right now, and she wants to stay focused," Ron Ludington, who directs University of Delaware's figure skating program, explained.

"She did run-throughs of her long program (to Puccini's "Nessun Dorma") yesterday and she hit the triple flip-triple loop combination five times out of five. She's getting mileage on it. Never write this kid off. She'll bounce back."

Questions about Meissner's competitive grit surfaced after the 2006 World champion placed sixth and last at the Grand Prix Final in Torino in December, falling three times in her free skate. Over three events, she has yet to gain credit for a clean triple-triple combination in competition this season.

The skater's coach, Pam Gregory, said Meissner was far from fit in Torino.

"She sprained her right ankle in training; she kept it under wraps and made no excuses. It was a tough injury, because of course that's the ankle she lands her jumps on.

"She didn't have time to recover and I know it bothered her. I think she tried to muscle the jumps, which doesn't work. She's much better now, because she's had a chunk of time to train for Nationals."

Still, other U.S. youngsters gained on the 18-year-old Meissner throughout the fall. The reigning national champion finished more than 22 points behind 14-year-old Caroline Zhang in Torino and lost the free skate at Trophee Eric Bompard to another American, 16-year-old Ashley Wagner.

"A few performances don't define who Kimmie is as a skater," Gregory asserted. "Look at Michelle Kwan, how many up-and-comers she went through. The true long-term champion says bring it on. Kimmie is tough and she's a great athlete."

Meissner is perfecting her programs with Birch, who visits her rink twice a week to refine her artistic expression. Her "Nessun Dorma" free, created by Lori Nichol, is her second long program of the season; an initial effort by David Wilson was scrapped.

"It was a beautiful program and we appreciated David's creativity, but Kimmie couldn't make it work," Gregory explained. "It was worth it to risk a change. I think it was a good decision. Last year, people said Kimmie was a bit mechanical out there, so we've been working on that."

Gregory is not tinkering with Meissner's jumping technique, despite newly critical judging that has cost the skater many technical points this season.

"The downgrades are happening a lot to almost everyone," she said. "It depends on the callers and how tough they are. And as for the deductions for incorrect take-off edges, quite frankly, most skaters do either two flips or two Lutzes in their programs. For skaters at this level, it's nothing they can fix in the middle of a season. They've already done these jumps thousands of times."

Programs and jumps aside, Gregory believes Meissner's greatest asset is her even-tempered approach to competition.

"Kimmie takes success and failure in stride," said the coach. "In this sport, you have to have a thick skin to survive. The Grand Prix Final results certainly don't determine who will be on the podium at the World Championships."