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Meissner gets some ice time

Short programs begin for women, men

From News Wire Services
SPOKANE, Wash. - Five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, the very definition of grace, is skipping the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week. So is Sasha Cohen, the porcelain doll who has twirled for so long in Kwan's shadow.

That leaves Kimmie Meissner, 17, poised to win her first U.S. championship, having claimed the silver and bronze, respectively, in her two previous attempts. She's the reigning world champion.

A senior at Fallston High School in Bel Air, Md., Meissner says she has spent the past few weeks stressing more about her final exams than what's in store at nationals. Her chief competition in tonight's short program (9 p.m., ESPN2, same day delay) is expected to come from Emily Hughes, younger sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes.

Taylor Firth, a 15-year-old from Grand Island, will make her senior debut tonight. She is the second-youngest skater in the field.

The men's short program also is tonight. Johnny Weir is going for his fourth straight title, but he'll face strong competition from Evan Lysacek.

The men's and women's free skates are Saturday.

Meissner, whose family is from Western New York, is as grounded a world champion as one will find. An "A" student, she loves science - human anatomy in particular - and is leaning toward a career in physical therapy. She's in the midst of mulling how heavy a course load to take next fall, when she plans to enroll as a freshman at the University of Delaware. More thorny still is the question of whether to live on campus or commute from the home she has shared with her parents, three older brothers, two dogs and a complement of cats.

Unlike so many teens who have devoted as many as a dozen years to a single sport, Meissner shows no signs of burnout.

"I still definitely love practice," she says. "I look forward to it when I'm in school. "Only a couple minutes till I go skating!' It's always challenging. I love the feeling of mastering everything - trying to get the jumps perfect."

Meissner has already achieved every skater's lifelong goal, winning the world championships last spring with a near flawless performance that included two triple-triple combinations. But she sees room to improve her artistic dimension and has thrown herself into that.

Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion, applauds the effort.

"She has proven that technically she is up there with the best in the world," Yamaguchi said. "The one part a skater can always improve on is the artistic side - to keep refining that and maturing artistically."

In Meissner's case, that means bringing out her personality and interpreting her music with more passion.

"She has got beautiful lines already," Yamaguchi said. "It's about fine-tuning her programs and adding a little inspiration to her movements."

To that end, Meissner has built her free skate program around a piece of Spanish music she loves, "Galicie Flamenco." The goal, she explains with a giggle, is to release her inhibitions on ice and make everything about her performance "bigger."