Unlike other 'shock' stars, Meissner here for long haul

PHILADELPHIA -- A little more than a year ago, Scott Hamilton invited a young up-and-coming skater named Kimmie Meissner to perform in one of his charity shows to benefit cancer research.

During one rehearsal, Hamilton, an Olympic gold medalist, bellowed, "Now presenting ... Kimmie Meissner!"

"It was kind of funny," Meissner said shortly afterward. "I'm just Kimmie."

Not anymore.

Just Kimmie is now Kimmie Meissner, world figure skating champion.

On Saturday night in Calgary, Alberta, the 16-year-old shocked everyone, including herself, and found herself in a new position --- as world champion and the new face of the future of American figure skating.

You think a triple axel is tough. Trying making that leap.

"No, it hasn't set in yet," Meissner said Tuesday morning while promoting an upcoming Champions on Ice tour stop in Philadelphia. "It still doesn't seem like it happened. I mean, I haven't even been home yet."

To get an idea of how quickly things have changed for Meissner, consider this: Before the World Championships, when publicists were scheduling a media day for Meissner, about 15 interviews were lined up. By Monday, the number of requests mushroomed. Meissner woke up at 5 a.m. and left her hotel by 6 a.m. By the time the day ended, at 6:20 p.m., she had done 26 interviews.

The hectic schedule meant she wouldn't be able to meet with the rest of her family for dinner. Her father, Paul, had planned to have everyone, including Kimmie's three older brothers, at the Meissners' home in the Baltimore suburb of Bel Air on Tuesday to celebrate. None of them traveled to Calgary because they had all been in Torino instead. The congratulatory hugs from dad would have to wait.

Meissner, who flew from Calgary to Philadelphia (via Montreal) on Monday, was still on Mountain time, so actually, her wake-up call felt more like 3 a.m. But you'd never know she was being run ragged by looking at her. She's dressed neatly in a simple blue argyle shirt and black skating pants, and she greets each reporter with a broad smile.

Several times, she's asked to give reporters on-ice skating tips, and she even lies down on her stomach on the ice with one TV reporter and pretends to swim on the ice. Both the reporter and Meissner giggle away. It's a refreshing change. Not exactly what you'd expect from the newly crowned queen of a diva sport.

During a quick morning break, a Champions on Ice publicist checks her BlackBerry and sees an e-mail from Meissner's agent.

"Is Kimmie getting any breaks today?" the agent wrote. "Her schedule is brutal."

Meissner just laughs. She's like the Energizer Bunny, ready to tackle more interviews and enjoy her moment in the white lights. But she actually did need a quick break --- to check out the BlackBerry.

"I really want one of those," says Meissner, who then borrows the BlackBerry to type a quick reply to her agent. In the message, she jokes that she'll do the rest of the interviews in exchange for a text-messaging phone.

Maybe she'll get one as a present for winning the world title?

"She doesn't need one of those," says Meissner's mother, Judy. "I don't even let her get on the Internet. If she had a BlackBerry, she'd use it all day. She can text message on her phone for hours."

What might she get, then? A free pass from cleaning her room this week?

"Actually," Judy Meissner says, "she keeps her room pretty neat."

Then, Kimmie Meissner is whisked away for a few more interviews.

All day long, Meissner is asked what it is like to be part of such a sudden transformation, changing from a fairly private teenager to being put in the record books with the likes of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Kristi Yamaguchi. All of a sudden, the skating world is looking at Meissner in a whole new light. Some have been so excited about her recent success that they're already making the jump to talking about her chances in Vancouver, the site of the next Winter Olympics, in 2010.

Her schedule for the next few weeks is so busy that it's understandable why she can't think about the next four years.

"I don't even want to know how much school I've missed," says Meissner, a high school junior who will be preparing for the SATs later this semester.

On April 7, she will skate in the opening show for Champions on Ice in Fort Myers, Fla. She will perform in about 10 shows. The one in Philadelphia on Easter Sunday is expected to be quite a scene since she trains just down the road in Newark, Del., and there is no tour stop in Baltimore.

Of course, there also is the junior prom.

"Yes," she said, "I'll squeeze in time for that."

Meissner pauses and calls out to her mother.

"Mom," she said, "When is that dance again? I can't remember."

It's at the end of April, and yes, she has a date (just a friend) and a dress.

Somehow, she'll try to get back into training mode, too. The offseason is when skaters select new music and work on new maneuvers. Meissner hopes to resurrect her triple axel, a jump she hasn't landed in competition since the 2005 U.S. Championships.

One reason U.S. Figure Skating is so enthusiastic about Meissner's quick rise to the top is that she plans to stick around for a while -- unlike Lipinski, who turned pro after winning the Olympic gold in 1998, and Sarah Hughes, the 2002 gold medalist, who quit competitive skating a little more than a year after her stunning performance in Salt Lake City.

Skating is at a crossroads this year, with Kwan expected to retire from competitive skating and Sasha Cohen's future up in the air. The women's event has always been the focus of American skating, but there was no clear heir apparent for that glamour role.

The answer, apparently, had been there all the time. It just took a world title for U.S. Figure Skating to take notice.

As excited as Meissner is about her win, she can't even begin to think about her future. Heck, it doesn't seem as though it was that long ago that she was asking Kwan for an autograph. Oh wait, it wasn't long ago -- that happened last year at nationals.

And Meissner knows how fickle this sport can be. An injury can crop up. Another skater can zip into the limelight. Even someone like Kwan, who with five world titles and nine U.S. championships was considered a can't-miss kid for an Olympic gold, never got to live that dream.

"It's funny because we have a picture of Kimmie with Michelle Kwan when Kimmie was about 6 years old," Judy Meissner said. "Kimmie wasn't even skating back then. We got tickets to a show because a patient of my husband's did the music for the tour and got us tickets.

"I keep telling Kimmie: 'Watch out for all those little girls that you see on the rink and backstage. All those little girls could be your competition.'"

Keep in mind that leading up to the 2006 U.S. Championships in January, some skating insiders wondered whether Meissner would even make the U.S. Olympic team in Torino much less win a world title. Kwan and Cohen were virtual locks, and only one other spot remained on the Olympic team. Even though Meissner was the 2005 bronze medalist and only the second American woman to land a triple axel in competition, she struggled a bit through the season and was outshone by Alissa Czisny.

Meissner wound up earning her spot on the team by placing second at nationals, but she still was off much of the media's radar. The focus was on whether Kwan would be healthy enough to compete in Torino and whether Cohen finally could win a major title. Even when Kwan bowed out, there seemed to be more attention on Emily Hughes (Sarah's younger sister and Kwan's replacement) than on Meissner.

Meissner's Olympic experience was good, not fantastic, since she wasn't able to land either of her two planned triple-triple combinations. Nevertheless, she wound up sixth, a solid showing for a young woman making her first trip to the games.

Then, leading up to the World Championships -- her first time competing in the event -- Meissner and her longtime coach, Pam Gregory, had their own doubts about Meissner's chances. Meissner had been bothered by a ruptured eardrum, which caused her a lot of pain when she practiced her spins. She had a great time in Torino, drinking cups of extra-rich Italian hot chocolate and hanging out with the U.S. speedskaters, but the three-week trip was exhausting. Gearing up for another major competition was tough.

"I had been so focused on the Olympics that I wasn't really thinking about worlds," Meissner says.

Not to mention that she spent part of the week leading up to the World Championships shooting a TV commercial for Subway. She has been eating a Subway sandwich every day, Monday through Friday, as her pre-practice lunch. It's so much of her routine that her local Subway franchise owner has her lunch ready for pickup.

So, getting back into the daily grind of going to school and skating wasn't such an easy transition.

"It was difficult to get her motivated one last time," Gregory says. "But once she got to Calgary, she got into competition mode, and I said, 'OK. This is going be all right.'"

It was more than all right. It was the best in the world.

Meissner landed seven triples, including two triple-triple combinations. When she finished her routine, she buried her face in her hands.

"I was so zoned in during the program," Meissner says. "At the end, I was super happy. Everything was kind of hitting me, and it was crazy. You know you did it, and it was just a major sense of relief."

It was the type of performance that skating, in general, needed. Not many skaters performed well in Torino -- certainly no one skated a memorable routine like Brian Boitano did in 1988 or Sarah Hughes did in 2002. But last week in Calgary, where few American reporters gathered to watch the World Championships, Meissner pulled off one of the best routines of her young life.

"It's probably a coach's dream come true to see your skater do something like that," Gregory says. "Seeing her on the podium with the national anthem playing and the medal around her neck ... it was just such a beautiful moment."

Meissner has no problems showing off her medal to gawking reporters in Philadelphia. She lets some of them hold it.

"Did you sleep with it?" asks a TV reporter.

"No," Meissner says. "I just kept it in its box."

Later in the day, another TV reporter asks whether Meissner will take out her medal for a shot. Judy Meissner runs back to a nearby dressing room and returns minutes later telling Kimmie it's not in the box. Then, Judy hands it over to her daughter.

"That wasn't funny, Mom," Kimmie says. "You scared me."

As important as the medal is to Meissner, she tells the reporter it's not the most important thing she took home from Calgary. What she'll have forever is the memory of a magical performance. And her name always will be in the record books.

When the interview ends, she gets that much-needed lunch break. What does she order? Nothing fancy for skating's new queen. Just the usual, a turkey sandwich with shredded carrots from Subway. Just the way Kimmie always eats it.

Apparently, there are still some things in Meissner's life that will never change.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.