Meissner, Cohen Keep the Big Picture in Focus

Times Staff Writer

Kimmie Meissner looked like a harem girl.

Sasha Cohen looked pale and subdued.

Just another day at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which will careen toward the unknown today with the start of the women's and men's events.

Meissner, 16, who caused a sensation by landing a triple axel a year ago, opened the door to her hotel room Wednesday and found her picture on the front page of USA Today. She'd posed in the costume from her "Queen of Sheba" program, a short scarlet dress that's trimmed with gold embroidery and tassels.

Her midriff looks bare, but a vertical line of beads affixed to flesh-toned mesh obscures her navel. She's wrapped in a billowing shawl and looking away from the camera in a fashion model-type pose.

Meissner, of Bel Air, Md., said friends had text-messaged her "saying silly things" about the picture, but she wouldn't elaborate. Her father's reaction, she said, "Was like, 'Oh, that's my little girl.' He was kind of nervous about the whole thing," she said.

"My mom and I were just laughing about it. I thought it was cool."

Like the picture, her practice at the Savvis Center was worth a thousand words, highlighted by a triple flip-triple toe loop combination jump and a double axel-double toe-double loop combination. She doesn't plan to try the triple axel here.

"It's not consistent enough to put in right now and I've also worked on other things that I hope will come out in my skating," she said, referring to her spins, footwork and triple-triple combination.

Cohen, expected to succeed the injured Michelle Kwan as champion, was off the ice for three days and practiced lightly on Tuesday because she had flu. She practiced most of her "Romeo and Juliet" routine on Wednesday. "I feel loads better every day," she said.

Kwan on Wednesday filed her petition for a berth on the Olympic team. It will be reviewed by the U.S. Figure Skating international committee after the free skate on Saturday, after which the committee will announce its Olympic nominations.

U.S. Figure Skating must submit its entries by Jan. 30, but the International Olympic Committee may permit replacement of an athlete in "exceptional circumstances" after that date.

Without Kwan here, "It feels a little weird.... It's just me and all these little girls," Cohen said. "We've competed five years together. It's a little empty, but I've got my own things to worry about."

Alissa Czisny, this season's teenage sensation, practiced at Savvis Center on Wednesday for the first time. Czisny, second at Skate America, first at Skate Canada and sixth in the Grand Prix Final, attributed her success to her work with a sports psychologist.

"In prior seasons I've gotten on the ice and gotten afraid and a little nervous," she said. "This season, I've gotten a little more comfortable competing."

She said she expects Kwan to get a medical bye onto the Turin team. "The best I can do is go out and skate my best and see what happens afterward," she said.

Like the women, the men perform their short program today and long program on Saturday. Evan Lysacek, last year's world bronze medalist, is the favorite if he can handle the discomfort from an old break in his left hip and bursitis in his right hip.

Defending men's champion Johnny Weir of Quarryville, Pa., said he foundered this season because he had to change his programs to suit the new judging system and because of personal problems he wouldn't discuss.

"It's not about perfection right now. It's about getting back into a comfort zone and feeling good on the ice," said Weir, who trains in Newark, Del.

Tim Goebel, the Salt Lake City bronze medalist who will retire after the season, said he will be aggressive here. He plans one quadruple jump and two triple axels in his long program.

"I could skate conservatively to earn a spot on the team, but that's not going to set me up for a good season," he said.

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