Stardom with a twist

Meissner's reign has been packed with demands, fun and even school

October 22, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Reporter

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- She stands at center ice, bathed in a spotlight and showered in the applause of a standing crowd of several hundred. It's only an exhibition in July, but Kimmie Meissner has skated a clean and graceful performance after nearly a week layoff, and the audience is grateful.

Suddenly, Meissner drops her hands and skates to the announcer's table at the side of the rink.

"Uh oh," says her father, Paul, as if he's seen the next page of a horror story. "Uh oh."

The announcer tells the crowd that Meissner wants to try a triple axel, the jump that vaulted her to national prominence and a bronze medal at the 2005 U.S. Championships, but has vexed her since.

Without music, Meissner skates to one end of the ice and, as she has done in countless practices, glides to an invisible spot and leaps high in the air. She lands on her backside, but the crowd applauds her moxie.

Hours later, after an autograph and picture-taking session, Meissner is asked why she tried the jump after a climactic standing ovation.

"It's what they came to see," she says, dipping into a cup of Ben and Jerry's ice cream with sprinkles. "I felt good. I'm a performer. Why not?"

The reigning world champion begins her second season on the senior international circuit this week. Meissner's summer was filled with opportunities not usually available to teenagers. She began a campaign to help children with cancer, raced around a NASCAR track, made an attention-grabbing walk down Tinseltown's red carpet and taped a TV commercial to promote a sandwich shop chain.

The 17-year-old has learned to sign her name on just about every imaginable surface and listened to many odd requests.

"This is her year to try things," says her mother, Judy. She's talking about skating, but it could just as easily be about growing up.

Meissner is no longer an unknown. A sixth-place finish at the Olympics in only her third senior event and winning the world title in March makes her the U.S. figure skater to beat.

Meissner's schedule includes Grand Prix events in Hartford, Conn., this week and Paris next month and the U.S. Championships in January.

Her goal, says coach Pam Gregory, is the national title.

Last season ended just as Meissner's tank was running dry. She had a bad cold at nationals, where she won the silver medal, and flu-like symptoms near the end of the Olympic competition. On the flight back home, she ruptured an eardrum, which threw her balance out of whack.

Running on fumes at worlds, she landed seven triple jumps in a performance she acknowledged "was the best that I could have done" to take the gold medal.

Peggy Fleming, a three-time world champ and the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, predicted at that time that Meissner's life was "going to get a little busier ... There are only so many hours in the day."

Schoolwork and public appearance requests were piled high when Meissner returned home to Bel Air.

"It was all a little crazy," Meissner recalls.

One of the first things she agreed to was becoming the spokeswoman for the "Cool Kids Campaign," sponsored by the Belanger-Federico-Pitterich Foundation. Meissner designed bracelets that Subway shops sold for $2. Proceeds are being used to pay for goody bags for pediatric oncology patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical System and for outings for their families during treatment.

Before the school year ended, Meissner got her own trading card in Sports Illustrated for Kids and threw out first pitches at both Camden Yards and the Philadelphia Phillies' Citizens Bank Park.

She chose music for her new long program in mid-June and then went to Hollywood in July for the ESPY Awards, where she was one of four nominated for Best Breakthrough Athlete. Although she lost to basketball player Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, the experience was unlike anything on the ice.

"It's just such a different world to have people say, `which athlete are you with,'" she says, giggling. "I say, `Me,' and they just look at you."

She brought four dresses to the event and wore three, including a black one with flowers that she chose for her walk down the red carpet.

"I didn't trip, and that was a big deal," she says.

As a nominee, she was offered a resort vacation, $5,000 in custom rims for a car she doesn't have yet (she still has a learner's permit) "and tons of iPody-things."

The stuff she kept is piled in the basement with unopened gear and souvenirs from the Winter Olympics.

August brought the highlight of her summer: a skating party for Cool Kids patients and their families at Ice World in Abingdon.

"It was unbelievable. They even let some kids in wheelchairs out on the ice," Meissner says. "They were smiling and laughing, and that's what Cool Kids is all about."

Last month, Meissner went to Dover International Speedway, where she pulled on a fire suit and helmet and rode shotgun as a NASCAR racer sped around the track at 150 mph.

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