After Meissner, ladies' event a whole new field
Quick. Who will be competing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week?
If you guessed Michelle Kwan, you'd be wrong.
Sasha Cohen? Nope. She says she might not come back until 2009, although that is pretty dubious.
Kimmie Meissner? Ding, ding, ding! You got one.
Even Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi was a bit stumped when asked about some of the newcomers to watch at these nationals. If she could only name a couple of young skaters, chances are, the average American can't.
Typically, in the year following the Olympics, there is a lull at the top. The elite skaters move on and make room for new ones. This year, there are plenty of fresh faces, especially with Kwan and Cohen not competing.
Kwan won nine U.S. titles between 1993 and 2005, making her the face of American skating. Technically, last year was the first time Kwan missed nationals, but she withdrew shortly before the competition with injuries. She may as well have been at the 2006 nationals in St. Louis, however, since she was the hot topic of conversation all week (would she be named to the Olympic team or not?). This is the first year the American public knew well in advance she wouldn't be skating at nationals.
Meanwhile, Cohen, the Olympic silver medalist in Torino and second to Kwan as the sport's biggest star, is busy pursuing an acting career.
So the women who will be competing in these championships (the women's short program is Thursday; the free skate is Saturday) are much of a mystery.
It's up to the new kid on the rink, Meissner, to revive the sport. Meissner has gained some national face time after shocking the world, including herself, by winning the 2006 world title. Still, she's got a ways to go before becoming a household name. As for some of the others, well, here are our handy skating CliffsNotes for the 2007 nationals:
She's the reigning world champion and the only woman in the field who has ever landed a triple axel in competition. She's trying to win her first national title (she was second in 2006 and third in 2005). If she wins this week, she will be only the second female skater to win a U.S. title after claiming a world crown. Meissner probably won't attempt a triple axel in Spokane, Wash., but she still plans on trying two triple-triples in the free skate. Meissner, 17, is trying to prove that she is no one-time wonder, and that she can develop artistically. This season, she has been skating a long program to Flamenco music. She's gotten some pointers from her mom's aunt, who was a Flamenco dancer.
Having made the 2006 Olympic team, Emily is finally growing out of that large shadow -- as Sarah Hughes' kid sister. In fact, when Sarah showed up in Hartford, Conn., to cheer on Emily at Skate America, Sarah's credential read, "Emily's sister." Hughes is a strong jumper and an energetic performer.
Making her seventh trip to nationals at the senior level, Liang could be classified as a veteran competitor, but she's never finished higher than fifth. Liang, 18, trains in Southern California with Ken Congemi and Frank Carroll, who worked with Kwan for a decade. Liang has shown moments of brilliance at nationals, and was the first woman to land a triple lutz-triple loop at nationals back in 2003. But injuries and consistency have plagued her.
Zukowski made her senior-level debut in 2006, finishing sixth at nationals. She also captured the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships. She was seventh and fifth, respectively, at her first two Grand Prix events this season. Following the NHK Trophy, she made a change, leaving longtime coach Jeff DiGregorio and Barbara Roles-Williams to work with Priscilla Hill. Zukowski, who had been under the radar screen at the University of Delaware ice rink, where Meissner is the resident queen, now spends most of her practice time up the road at The Pond, also in Newark. That's the home rink for three-time men's champ Johnny Weir.
A former novice champion and a silver medalist at the junior level, Flatt is making the jump to seniors this season. Still a raw talent at 14, she has the technical capability to compete with the top skaters.
She had a breakthrough season a year ago, but has since, well, Czisled. She was considered an Olympic team hopeful, but wound up seventh at nationals. This season, she finished fourth and ninth in Grand Prix events.
Once a top rival to Meissner in the novice and junior levels, Taylor seemed to be ready for seniors by placing fourth at nationals in 2006 and winning the Four Continents crown. At her Grand Prix events, she was 11th and 12th, citing "personal issues" as a reason for her inexplicable decline.
OK, so she's competing at the junior level, and not at seniors, but this kid could be a force come 2010. She won the Junior Grand Prix title and was even featured recently in Sports Illustrated's famous "Faces in the Crowd." She's got a lot of style for a young skater (she is just 13). She botched her double axel in the short program in Spokane, but that was a rare mistake. When Yamaguchi was asked about up-and-comers, the name that came to mind immediately was Zhang's. "I've been very impressed," Yamaguchi said. In other words, keep an eye on this kid.
Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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