With short programs looming, skaters strategize


ST. LOUIS -- When Kimmie Meissner awakened Wednesday morning, she opened up her hotel room door and was greeted by a photograph of herself on the cover of USA Today.

Meissner, a 16-year-old who usually acts and dresses like the girl next door, was then teased incessantly by friends in numerous text messages for her seductive pose. Instead of having her hair pulled back in a ponytail, her hair was down and wind blown.

Her two-piece, red-and-gold costume, complete with a Britney Spears midriff, was reminiscent of Kwan's "coming out" party, when she donned heavy makeup for her famous Salome routine. The photo actually was shot back in October, when Olympic hopefuls met with national media in Colorado Springs, Colo.

On the ice, when Meissner wore the outfit earlier this season, it looked mature and appropriate, especially since her routine is to "Queen of Sheba." The photo, however, which has her draped in a white shall, connotes sexuality.

"My dad was kind of nervous," Meissner said. "'That's my little girl.'"

Her mother, Judy, didn't have any problems with the photo.

"I think that anyone who knows her knows that that's not her," Judy Meissner said. "I don't think you can take anything like that too seriously."

Meissner actually won't be wearing that costume at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week. She's got a new outfit for this event. But the impact of the photo was made: At these national championships, in which three women will be selected to compete at the upcoming Olympics, it's clear that everyone is pulling out all of the stops.

Meissner, who is vying for a spot along with favorite Sasha Cohen, Alissa Czisny and Emily Hughes, definitely led the way in the discussions.

Only the champion is guaranteed a ticket to Torino. The other two spots are up for grabs, and a special committee of judges, coaches, skaters and other officials will determine those spots in a meeting following the long program Saturday night.

On the ice, Meissner made a strong statement, as well. She landed six triples, including two triple-triple combinations, in practice Wednesday morning. The only thing absent from the otherwise solid routine was a triple axel. She became the first woman since Tonya Harding to land one in competition at the 2005 U.S. Championships.

Meissner doubts she will try one in competition here, since she's been struggling with consistency.

So, even though the triple axel helped Meissner jump into the spotlight, chances are it's too risky.

"It is a little bit frustrating for her," said Meissner's coach, Pam Gregory. "But she wants her focus to be on her overall skating. She was very good last year, but I think she realized, 'If I miss it, what else do I have?' She has improved so much as a skater this year."

One interesting aspect of her strategy is that she has an unusual, but rather simple, jump combination at the end of her program. It's a three-jump combination with a double axel, double toe and double loop. That combination actually is worth almost the same as a triple axel under the new judging system. And because it's at the end of the routine, Meissner even scores bonus points.

No one is missing a trick.

The same is true on the men's side, where there is also a four-way battle for three Olympic spots. The contenders are 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Tim Goebel, two-time national champion Johnny Weir, 2005 world bronze medalist Evan Lysacek and three-time national titlist Michael Weiss.

Each one has their own storyline and game plan, too.

Goebel is competing in his 13th and final national championships, and hopes his past Olympic success will help him now. Weir has struggled through a horrible season, battling personal problems (which he declined to make public) and poor skating.

Lysacek is hoping his injury troubles are behind him and Weiss is looking for a major rebound after placing fifth at nationals last year.

Goebel, dubbed the "Quad King" after performing three quadruple jumps in one program, is now hoping to land one here. He landed three in his long program in Salt Lake City four years ago.

"The base value for the quad is much too low," Goebel said.

Goebel plans on hanging up his competitive skates after this season. He has considered remaining in the sport as a skating judging official.

Weir, meanwhile, had to completely revamp both his short and long programs to ensure that he would earn as many points under the new scoring system as possible. After they were initially choreographed over the summer in Simsbury, Conn., he was informed that he wouldn't have a successful season.

"Judges basically told me if you don't change them, you won't get results," Weir said. "It's such a pressure filled year. Every federation wants their skater to be the best naturally, and for their own medal counts. They were pushing me for my own good and for their own medal counts."

Weir has always beat to his own drum, whether it was by wearing eccentric costumes or saying things that didn't jive with skating officials. He said he's not going to hinge his life's worth on whether or not he makes the Olympic team. Still, he's not in this to lose, either.

"I've come back to be the three-time national champion," Weir said. "I haven't come back to be two-time national champ and one time bronze medalist or silver medalist. That's not how I play this game."

Or is it?

One fan has pushed her passion for Johnny Weir pretty far. She got his autographed signature tattooed on her ankle. ... Alissa Czisny isn't betting against Michelle Kwan. There has been much debate as to whether the nine-time U.S. champion will be granted a spot on the team since she withdrew from nationals with a pulled groin. "I'm guessing they'll give her a spot on the team," Czisny said. "It's just important for us to focus on our skating."

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.