Rare jump in 15-year-old's repertoire

Updated: January 14, 2005, 7:29 PM ET
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Kimmie Meissner quieted all the speculation by landing a couple of triple axels during practice for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Now the question is whether the teenager will include the difficult jump in her free skate Saturday -- and Meissner has been keeping mum since completing the jumps on Wednesday.

"It's kind of spur of the moment for me, because I just started doing them a little bit ago," said Meissner, a 15-year-old, fair-haired sprite competing at her first senior nationals. "If I feel up to it I might do it, I might not. I don't know."

Fourteen years after Tonya Harding became the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, the jump remains rare. Harding is still the only American woman to do one, and only a handful of women in the world have executed it in competition since 1992.

Before Meissner did it in practice, there was much speculation about whether she actually could. Now it's a game-time decision. If she decides against an attempt, she'll do a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, one of the more difficult triple-triples.

Her jumping skills could get her noticed in a field dominated by eight-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan and three-time U.S. silver medalist Sasha Cohen. And what better place to do it than Harding's hometown?

Kwan won the short program Thursday night, earning three perfect 6.0s for presentation. Cohen was second and Jennifer Kirk third. Meissner was fourth, a very respectable showing for someone just breaking into the senior ranks.

Meissner won the U.S. junior title last year, and the novice crown in 2003.

"I hit all my jumps and I feel I skated pretty good for me," Meissner said. "I'm still working on it to try and get it better."

The triple axel is considered one of the hardest jumps because it requires tremendous strength and the ability to rotate quickly. Skaters lead into the jump head-on, rather than backward, increasing the level of difficulty because they must do 3½ revolutions before landing.

Just how tough is that? Studies have shown that to complete a clean triple axel, a skater must have a rotational speed of five revolutions per second.

Harding did three triple axels in competition, the first during her free skate at the 1991 nationals. That, of course, was before the whack heard 'round the world. Hoping to clear Harding's way to gold and glory, her live-in ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired a hitman to attack Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 national championships.

Harding was banned by U.S. Figure Skating and now trains in Portland as a professional boxer. To this day, she denies any prior knowledge of the attack or any involvement in it.

Harding wasn't the first skater to do a triple axel. Midori Ito of Japan landed one at the 1989 world championships, and also did two during her free skate at the 1992 Albertville Olympics.

Ludmila Nelidina of Russia and Yukari Nakano of Japan landed one each at Skate America in 2002. Mao Asada of Japan performed one in the Junior Grand Prix final last year.

Japan's Miki Ando landed a quadruple salchow at the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final, becoming the first woman to nail a quadruple jump.

"I think that the ladies really don't give quite so much priority on advanced content in jumping, whereas I think the men do," said John Nicks, Cohen's coach. "They're asked to skate very elegantly, and spin well, and have beautiful arabesques and spirals, which the men that I've taught aren't that interested in. They want to go out and just jump, jump, jump."

Meissner, who is just 5 feet tall, had said she wanted to skate big enough at nationals that even the people high up in the grandstand would take note.

"I think I did OK," she said after her short program. "I think I could do a little bit better."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press