You'd think that Kimmie Meissner, an Olympian, world champion and reigning U.S. figure skating champion, would be the odds-on favorite to defend her title this week in St. Paul, Minn.
After all, some of her biggest competitors are still in junior high school.
Even Meissner's hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun, featured her in an article this week with the headline, "Comeback Kimmie."
Meissner might have the credentials and the medals, but when it comes to having the perception as being the favorite, well, that's another story. And in figure skating, perception is almost larger than reality.
Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu -- both 14 and making their senior-level debut at nationals -- announced their presence last year in Spokane, Wash., in one of the most gripping competitions at the junior level, and they have continued to impress this season. Then there's Ashley Wagner, another junior-turned-senior, and Rachel Flatt, who placed fifth in her senior debut last year.
Alissa Czisny is also considered a contender. She has struggled to maintain consistent jumps but can command the rapt attention of everyone in an arena with her elegance. She managed to put it all together to win the free skate last year, but her fifth-place showing in the short program left her with a bronze medal.
"It is wide open," said Dick Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, whose appearance in St. Paul marks his 55th trip to the national championships. "Kimmie has as much potential for winning this event as any of the others."
Why are skating insiders hesitating to bestow the crown on Meissner? Most of the criticism stems from her last-place performance at the Grand Prix Final, an event which pits the top six skaters/teams from the world in each discipline. Her jumps were off, but that wasn't the only problem. The choreography for the free skate (to "Nessun Dorma" by Puccini) also was retooled after that competition. And that was the second free-skate program she's had this season. (Meissner scrapped a different routine not long before Skate America, her first competition of the season.) She also had been recovering from an ankle injury.
OK, so it wasn't her week. Let's rephrase that: It really wasn't her week.
But is that any reason to push the panic button?
Are we really supposed to judge the national champion based on one event? If that were true, then Tara Lipinski should have had no business winning an Olympic gold medal in 1998. After all, she placed 23rd (second to last) in the short program and 15th overall at the 1997 World Championships.
Everyone has ups and downs in this sport, including some of the most consistent skaters in the world. These days, it's tougher than ever to maintain consistency. Gone are the days of the 6.0 judging system, when the favorites could stay on top with fishy artistic marks. Although the new scoring system isn't perfect -- no subjective sport can ever be perfectly scored -- favorites can't win with major flaws. There are more dramatic leaps from the bottom to top and vice versa than ever before; even in ice dancing, the same teams don't always finish 1-2-3.
What separates the champions from the rest of the pack is their ability to regroup. There's no doubt Meissner has a mighty challenge ahead of her this week, beginning with the short program Thursday evening.
Meissner doesn't have the finesse or flexibility that some of her younger counterparts have, but what she lacks in those departments, she more than makes up for with her triple-jump combinations. She also has the experience that many of her competitors don't.
So while it's definitely understandable to question whether Meissner is the favorite in St. Paul, there's no question that she isn't going down without a fight.
Others to Watch
She is mesmerizing, especially with her spin positions. Often, you have to wonder whether she actually has bones in her back, because it doesn't seem natural for her to whirl around the ice in some of ways her body is contorted. Some skaters, including three-time champion Johnny Weir, have wondered aloud how damaging those spins might be to her later in life. At the moment, however, they're scoring her big points with the judges. Even if Zhang were to win the national title in this debut at the senior level, she won't be able to compete in the World Championships on March 17-23 in Sweden because, at 14, she's too young. So take advantage of watching her compete while you can.
She's another young, talented skater who actually beat Zhang last year to become the U.S. junior champion. Nagasu, however, has flown under Zhang's radar (and most everyone else's) this season because she opted to compete in the Junior Grand Prix circuit instead of making the jump to the senior level. While few were watching, she whirled her way through the circuit, winning every event she entered, including the Junior Grand Prix Final. If she performs to her potential this week, she won't have the luxury of being out of the public eye for long. Like Zhang, however, the 14-year-old Nagasu will be stuck training in Southern California during the World Championships.
Always skating in the backdrop of the media, Wagner is about as feisty as they come in terms of jumping prowess and overall ability. She doesn't have the flair that Zhang and Nagasu possess, but we'd love to have her on our hockey team. She's also on a career path that's reminiscent of none other than Sarah Hughes (not to mention they both are tough jumpers and competitors). Consider this: During the 1999 U.S. championships in Salt Lake City, much ado was made of silver medalist Naomi Nari Nam and a young junior competitor named Sasha Cohen, both of whom had the pizzazz that Zhang and Nagasu have. And like Zhang and Nagasu, neither Nam nor Cohen was old enough to compete at the World Championships that year. But fourth-place Sarah Hughes qualified and, well, you know how her story ended three years later at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. A lot can happen between now and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but Wagner seems to have staying power.
Her free skate last year in which she portrayed Audrey Hepburn's "Sabrina" persona was stunning -- so much so that she actually beat Meissner and Olympian Emily Hughes to win that portion of the competition. At 20, she's also one of the most mature competitors in the field. She's had some pretty strong supporters this past season, most notably Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano and his longtime coach Linda Leaver. Boitano and Leaver have worked with Czisny this season, mainly to fine-tune programs and provide much-needed emotional support. Her biggest nemesis, however, is her jumping ability. Can she catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row?
At 15, Flatt is making her second trip to nationals at the senior level. She placed first and second in her Junior Grand Prix events and was second (behind Nagasu) in the Junior Grand Prix Final. The 4-foot-11 skater who trains in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been working on triple-triple combinations and could prove to be a surprise in St. Paul this week.
Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.