Meissner again flying under radar heading into worlds

NEWARK, Del. --- Could this really be?

Kimmie Meissner, the reigning national and world champion, is the underdog for the upcoming World Figure Skating Championships?

If you listen to Meissner and her coach, Pam Gregory, you might get that feeling.

Rewind to the 2006 World Championships. This was supposed to be Sasha Cohen's chance to shine, her opportunity to redeem herself from a disappointing free skate in Torino. Meissner was deemed a long shot. Yet it was Meissner who prevailed. Traditionally, in figure skating, you're supposed to wait your turn, but Meissner didn't care to wait.

Now here we are, a year later, and Meissner is not only the reigning world champion but also the U.S. champ.

But wait. She's not the favorite.

She'll be competing this week at the worlds in Tokyo, and these days, skating's popularity in Japan is so strong, you might think Tonya and Nancy are controlling the remote. In the wake of Shizuka Arakawa's stunning victory in Torino, which marked Japan's first figure skating Olympic gold medal, the country has been following Mao Asada, whom the country believes is Arakawa's successor to the crown.

Meissner vividly recalls skating in Japan. Every time she skated at one end of the ice, she couldn't help but notice a sea of photographers with their cameras whirling.

Click. Click. Click.

She'd glide by again and the cameras would sound again.

Click. Click. Click.

It was unlike anything she had ever seen.

Just last month, a TV crew from Japan came to interview Meissner at her training rink at the University of Delaware. So naturally, you'd think this might be additional pressure for the 17-year-old Meissner, who will try to defend her world title in Japan.


The pressure, Meissner and Gregory believe, likely will be on the Japanese skaters. They are the ones who are going to have to live up to the hype, not Meissner. In fact, the focus of that TV interview was on Meissner's rivalry with Asada.

"I don't know if I'd say it's an advantage," Meissner said of her being under the radar somewhat in Japan. "But they're going to be skating in their home country."

There is some truth to all of this. No one really believed Meissner would win the 2006 world title. Even Gregory admits that Meissner "skated like she was out of her mind that day."

Gregory carries around a notebook at practice that reads, "The Road to Vancouver Begins in Spokane," meaning the journey to the 2010 Olympics was supposed to start at the 2007 U.S. Championships, not at the World Championships in 2006 in Calgary, Alberta.

And, truth be told, the glare of the Japanese media spotlight will be tough on the Japanese skaters. In their eyes, Meissner is somewhat of an afterthought.

The last time Meissner and Asada met, at Skate America in October, a pack of Japanese reporters followed Asada's every step. They could be seen filming her walking from her hotel to the rink. Asada won the short program, and Miki Ando was second. Meissner was third, quickly dismissed by the Japanese media as a threat. Meissner joked that she might as well pack up and go home.

Boy, did Meissner show them.

Ando wound up the winner, but Meissner pulled out a dazzling, six-triple performance to place second. Meanwhile, Asada, whose practices were dazzling and whose triple axels seemed as effortless as 1-inch putts, fell apart after she missed her triple axel in the free skate.

Meissner easily could be dismissed internationally because she failed to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, an event that features the top six skaters in the world. She's been out of sight and pretty much out of mind. Even the International Skating Union's own preview of the world championships leads with Asada, Korea's Yu-Na Kim and Ando.

Some will look at Meissner's performance at the U.S. Championships and wonder how strong she really is heading into these world championships. Although she was first after the short program and won the title, she made what she called "foolish mistakes" on spirals and spins to place third behind Alissa Czisny and Emily Hughes in the free skate. Both Czisny and Hughes will be competing at the world championships, as well.

Was Meissner perfect? No.

Does it matter? No.

Meissner showed her tenacity by winning the Four Continents competition the week after claiming the U.S. crown. Even though she spent a few days after nationals doing media spots in New York, Meissner competed at Four Continents and won. She won by six points, a large margin in skating's new scoring system, especially since she was in sixth place after the short program.

"It was clear that she was the champion," Gregory said. "It wasn't so close."

Call her an underdog if you'd like, but Meissner is not boarding a 15-hour flight to Tokyo to take in the sights and sample some sushi. This is a "more meat" Subway sandwich kind of girl, remember.

When asked if she had an idea of how many titles she'd like to win, Meissner couldn't answer in terms of numbers.

"As many as I can," she replied.

By her own admission, Meissner is very competitive. Recently, when she filmed TV commercials for Subway, she joked with star NFL running back Reggie Bush about doing a better job. Apparently, Bush took a long time to film his ad because he was botching the lines. Meissner was wondering what was so difficult about saying, "More meat."

"I think he was intimidated by me, maybe with my major figure skating muscles," Meissner said with her trademark giggle.

She does giggle like a girl much younger than her 17 years. She's quick to point out she doesn't have a driver's license yet and, although she's in the throes of her teenage years, she's legitimately glad she'll continue to live at home with her parents following her high school graduation this spring.

This might all be a part of a master plan. Meissner looks and acts very sweet. Her foundation benefits children battling cancer. But on the ice, it's as if she's possessed by someone else.

"I wouldn't want to tangle with her," said Ron Ludington, University of Delaware skating director and Olympic bronze medalist.

Underdog or not, Meissner wants this world title to remain hers, even if some observers look at last year's performance as somewhat of a fluke.

"I'd love to do it again," Meissner said. "I want to try to be on top again."

And as for the Olympics three years from now, "I'd like to win [a medal]," she said. "A gold, that would be nice."

So Meissner gladly will take the underdog title. Just as long as some other titles come along with it.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.