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Meissner sharpens focus on Olympic spot

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Sixteen-year-old Kimmie Meissner just hasn't had time to practice parallel parking. So getting a learner's permit is on hold while she pursues another goal: skating in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

The inspiration is there. The past three Olympic women's figure skating champions have been 16-year-old Sarah Hughes in 2002, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski in 1998 and 16-year-old Oksana Baiul in 1994.

"It's good to know that it's possible. It depends on how you skate," says Meissner, entered this week in her first international Grand Prix series event, the Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris.

Says her coach, Pam Gregory: "The Olympics is about that moment in time, and anything can happen. It's not pre-calculated."

Right now, the skater atop the field is 26-year-old Russian Irina Slutskaya. In March, the 2002 Olympic silver medalist won her second world title. Earlier this month, she won the Cup of China Grand Prix event.

But she won't call herself the favorite for the Feb.10-26 Olympics in Torino, Italy. "You never know who can win there," she says.

Sasha Cohen, 21, silver medalist at the 2005 worlds, also is scheduled to skate in the Grand Prix event Thursday through Saturday in Paris. After winning the Campbell's Classic Oct.8 in St. Paul, she sustained an hip-abdomen injury that kept her out of Skate America event in late October.

Five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, 25, is rehabbing from a hip injury after withdrawing from her two scheduled Grand Prix events. Her goal now is to get healthy for U.S. nationals Jan.8-15 in St. Louis.

Slutskaya says she was "so sad" Kwan withdrew from the Cup of China event. "It's always a really interesting competition when we're together, and we're just friendly," Slutskaya says. "Other girls, like they're young. It's not our generation."

That new generation includes Meissner and Alissa Czisny, 18, who's in the spotlight after a silver medal at Skate America and a gold at Skate Canada. The Bowling Green sophomore already has qualified for the Grand Prix Final on Dec.16-19 in Tokyo.

"There are tons of fabulous skaters out there," Gregory says. "If you are going to succeed, you have to maintain focus on yourself because that's all you have control over. There is always going to be tough competition and new skaters coming up."

Meissner finished third behind Kwan and Cohen at the 2005 U.S. nationals, where she became the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in competition since Tonya Harding in 1991. Because she didn't turn 15 until Oct.4, 2004, Meissner was too young to compete at the March worlds. World and Olympic rules require a skater turn 15 by July 1 of the previous year.

Now eligible for the Olympics, Meissner was second to Cohen at the Campbell's event. Her Grand Prix events also will include the NHK Trophy on Dec. 1-3 in Japan.

"There is a lot of experience to be gained competing against high-level skaters," Meissner says.

She also will get a reading on how her programs measure up with international judges under the new scoring system, which awards points based on degree of difficulty.

"Probably the biggest thing we're trying to accomplish is just getting her programs out there, both programs (long and short)," Gregory says. "Just seeing how they fare in the new system and seeing the changes we are going to need to make before nationals and hopefully the Olympics.'

Meissner did not attempt a triple axel at the Campbell's event because she wasn't hitting it in practice and warm-ups. Whether she tries it this week will be based on the same considerations. Says Meissner: "Actually, I want to try and skate my program a lot better ... more than think about one jump."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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