Kimmie Meissner concluded her first season skating among the sport's elite in spectacular fashion, and she'll now turn her attention to the next big event on her calendar: the school prom.

"Well, I'm going with a friend who is a guy," she said, "but [he's] just my friend."

But soon there might be more on her plate than picking out the perfect dress. The Bel Air 16-year-old, whose parents pride themselves on giving their daughter a normal upbringing, enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the sport's competitive ladder this season. And with Saturday's surprising win at the World Figure Skating Championships, life might soon be changing.

Neither Michelle Kwan nor Sasha Cohen is expected to skate much past this year, which leaves Meissner as U.S. figure skating's torchbearer heading into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Her coach, Pam Gregory, says it's a role Meissner has dreamed about.

"It's been the goal for her," Gregory said. "We thought no matter what, after this season Michelle would definitely retire. We're not sure about Sasha and what her plans are, but Kimmie's excited for the future."

Cohen was tight-lipped about her future after her third-place performance Saturday, saying only that she's looking forward to some vacation time.

In the figure-skating world, the top American woman is treated like sports royalty. Until Meissner's stunning performance Saturday, there was no obvious heir to Kwan's throne. If Meissner can capitalize on her recent success, the future holds endless possibilities - cereal boxes, sponsorship dollars and media exposure.

"It's going to get a little busier," predicted Peggy Fleming, a three-time world champ and the 1968 Olympic gold medalist. "I think her parents and her coach will keep her grounded and will protect her. There are only so many hours in the day, and she is still just 16."

Other American teens have won international titles - most notably Kwan, Sarah Hughes and Tara Lipinski - but only Kwan stuck around to really capitalize on the achievement. Meissner has given every indication that she plans to skate for a long time.

Yesterday was Meissner's first full day as the world champ. Her morning began before 5 o'clock, when she was whisked off to the first of three television appearances. In the afternoon, she skated in an exhibition that brought the world championships to a close.

She is expected to return to Maryland today and is scheduled to appear at a news conference tomorrow in Philadelphia to promote the Champions on Ice tour.

Because Meissner has a couple of months left in her junior year at Fallston High, she is expected to skate only occasionally on the tour.

"Hopefully, things don't change too much," said the skater's mother, Judy Meissner.

Aside from the attention and media exposure, the young skater will be competing with loftier expectations next season. She'll need to continue to grow athletically.

"She kind of went under the radar going into the Olympics this year, but I think people really did take notice [of] the quality of her skating and the elegance that she has," Fleming said. "Now she just needs to mature some more, make sure she's doing the right choreography and the right program, just get more comfortable in her skin. Right now, she's just starting to make the world notice her."

Meissner will continue to work on her spins and footwork, and she said she'll also try to put the triple axel back into her program. Meissner is the second American woman to nail the triple axel in competition (Tonya Harding is the other), though she abandoned the jump this year to focus on her combinations.

"I'm still working on it, but kind of off and on," she said. "Hopefully, I can get consistent. I'd love to bring it back."

When she takes the ice next, Meissner will be the one to beat. It's one thing to win a crown; it's another to defend it. U.S. skating officials hope last weekend was a hint of what's to come.

"Kimmie hasn't won a national championship at a high level yet," said David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating. "But this is a great start, and I think next year's nationals in Spokane will be very interesting."

rick.maese@baltsun.com