Meissner glides to title

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Kimmie Meissner beat the world champion and the world junior champion and survived the judges who decided to enforce the scoring system yesterday to earn the gold medal at Skate America.

Going into the free skate with a 2.76-point lead, the U.S. champion squeaked by Japan's Miki Ando, the reigning world champion, by 1.34 points. Caroline Zhang, the junior champion, finished third.

Meissner, 18, of Bel Air, called the victory, her first Grand Prix win, "just a great start for me."

"I have a lot I can improve on. I know it wasn't perfect," she said of her performance, which received a total score of 163.23. Meissner's victory mirrored that of her U.S. championship in that she won the short program but finished second to Ando in the free skate.

But the real buzz last night was about the judging, which downgraded all 11 skaters for cheating on their jumps - taking off on the wrong skate edge or under-rotating. Six skaters had two or more infractions.

Meissner was downgraded on two jumps and Ando one jump on her way to a score of 161.89. Only one of Zhang's seven jumps was clean, leaving her with a score of 153.35.

Zhang's face registered surprise when her expanded score was displayed on a television screen. For the 14-year-old and her coach, Li Mingzhu, it was a new experience.

"I didn't really expect it, but I'll get to work harder and try to get it cleaner," Zhang said.

But Pam Gregory, Meissner's coach, said monitors from the International Skating Union warned last summer that a strict interpretation of the rules was coming.

"They said these things the last couple of years, but this year, they're actually enforcing it," Gregory said.

Meissner said she was surprised to see how many times skaters were penalized. "You really have to be sure about what you put in your programs," she said.

Meissner's next Grand Prix event is Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris in mid-November. Another podium finish will almost assure her of a place in the Grand Prix Final in December in Turin, Italy, the site of last year's Olympics.

Ando, 19, looked unhappy and left the ice early during morning practice, raising speculation that a right shoulder injury sustained during a made-for-TV program in Japan had flared up. She showed none of the energy that earned her the world title in March.

"I am not ready for competition. My training is not 100 percent," Ando said. "I was happy to get second place."

Emily Hughes' misery continued. After scoring the second-worst technical marks in the short program, the U.S. silver medalist had a gruesome practice, frequently looking disgusted and resigned. Just before the start of her long program, Hughes, 18, missed a high-five with her coach and then missed scoring points with the judges in subpar program skated to "Carmina Burana." Even after all that, she finished fourth.

It all came up ones for U.S. ice dancing champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, who led from start to finish to beat the French team of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat by 11.11 points. Frederica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy finished third.

Belbin and Agosto decided to build their free dance around classical music and turned to composer Joseph LoDuca, a multiple Emmy nominee who combined four pieces by Frederic Chopin.

Agosto said the result is "more than a story, it's a feeling" with "an innocent character to it."

Both skaters went to Los Angeles for four days of modern dance boot camp to improve their ability to interpret the music.

As a result, Belbin said: "It came together so quickly. That's how you know when it's special."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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