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Meissner tries to fit the mold

Special to The Times

Kimmie Meissner arrived with what she couldn’t resist calling “my entourage,” which looked like a fair portrayal if numbers were the only criterion.

There were Meissner’s parents, her skating coach, her strength and conditioning coach, her agent and a reporter tagging along in the fall to watch Meissner get the full star treatment at the headquarters of ESPN.

Six adults and one 95-pound teenage figure skater, not an ounce of bling or bodyguard muscle among them. Some entourage.

And the star? She was moving from a live TV interview to a live Internet chat to a podcast taping.

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It goes without saying that Meissner was asked to do the ESPN multimedia circuit because she wears figurative bling, the crown of a reigning world champion. In figure skating, that achievement can bring considerable renown if it adorns the head of a U.S. woman, especially one as charming as Meissner.

“So why should someone go to Skate America?” the ESPN News anchor asked Meissner, referring to the event beginning that day in nearby Hartford.

“They should come out because it’s going to be a very competitive competition ... and also, I’m going to be there, and they should come out and watch.”

“Watch a world champ,” the anchor said.

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“Yeah, that’s it,” Meissner said with an impish smile and her giggle.

You better have ice in your veins to deal with it, though, especially if the world title stands out from the rest in a resume in which the second-most remarkable item is a jump you have landed only once, especially if you are counted on to be the next U.S. standout in a sport whose charismatic old standby has left the arena.

Meissner, an elfin 17-year-old, spent years looking up to nine-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan, the sport’s superstar for a decade. As Meissner seeks her first national title when the women’s competition begins Thursday night in Spokane, Wash., she knows the eyes of thousands of little girls will be on her.

“I don’t try and think about being the face of figure skating,” she said. “Everything came on very suddenly.”

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Since the world championships, she has walked the red carpet at the ESPYs, become official ambassador for the “Cool Kids” campaign to help pediatric oncology patients, thrown out first pitches at Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies games and is the spokesperson for a public school reading challenge.

“I didn’t want to say no to anything because I might not be able to do it again,” she said.

Unassuming as she is, Meissner realizes that so far, her recognition is limited to hard-core skating fans and her fellow residents of Harford County, Md., just north of Baltimore.

In the 2006 season, her first on the senior international circuit, Meissner had two fifth-place finishes in Grand Prix events. Then she was a very respectable sixth at the Olympics. With the gold and bronze medalists skipping the 2006 world championships, Meissner figured that she had a good chance at a medal.

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“Winning was totally a shocker,” she said.

Meissner now looks like an overwhelming favorite against the weakest women’s national championship field in at least 25 years.

She was third in her senior national debut two years ago and runner-up last year to Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, taking this year off after winning her first U.S. title in the absence of the injured Kwan. The problem is Meissner’s skating so far this season has been underwhelming.

With a second place to Miki Ando of Japan at Skate America and a third behind Kim Yu-Na of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan in Paris three weeks later, Meissner finished eighth in the season standings and became the first reigning world champion who failed to qualify for the subsequent Grand Prix final.

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Her inconsistency has raised questions about whether the stunning free skate that won the world title was a one-time wonder, like the triple axel she landed in the 2005 U.S. championships.

Meissner then was a 15-year-old with nothing to lose by trying a jump so difficult only one other U.S. woman has landed it: Tonya Harding, who hit it three times in 1991. A back injury last season forced Meissner to shelve the jump. Her one try this season ended in a fall.

“Kimmie isn’t a one-time wonder; she is a new-time wonder,” said Frank Carroll, who coached Kwan for a decade. “If she really is a worthy champion, she will prove she can defend the title and skate well time after time after time.

“She is in a stage of development. It’s premature to expect her to do [a performance like that at the world championships] all the time.”

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How well Meissner skates at the U.S. championships seems more significant to the rest of her season than a triumph that appears a foregone conclusion.

“It’s very mental for her right now,” said Olympic pairs medalist Peter Carruthers, who covers skating for ABC/ESPN. “If she has any doubt, it can undermine anything she does on the ice. There is always the risk of being a one-shot wonder, but I don’t think Kimmie is one because her work ethic and her determination to get through are so strong.”

Meissner’s temperament reassures her skating coach, Pam Gregory, that she can return to a championship level.

“For a teenage girl, she is pretty even keel,” Gregory said. “One of the reasons Kimmie has had so much success is that even on frustrating days, she gets through problems much faster than if she were an emotional mess out there.”

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Philip Hersh covers the Olympics for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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Competition continues through Sunday at Spokane, Wash. Thursday, Friday and Saturday events will be televised:

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* Thursday: Men’s and ladies short program, 6-9 p.m., ESPN2 (taped).

* Friday: Pairs free and free dance, 8:30-11 p.m., ESPN2 (taped).

* Saturday: Ladies free skate, 1-3 p.m., Channel 7 (live).

* Saturday: Men’s free skate, 8-11 p.m., ESPN2 (live).

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