More twists, turns ahead
After a season that started with a win, bottomed out in January and regained some altitude with a seventh-place finish at the World Figure Skating Championships this week, what does Kimmie Meissner do now?

For one, the figure skater from Bel Air has to settle on a coach. The obvious choice is Richard Callaghan, the man who rebuilt Meissner's confidence and performance level to something resembling her former self.

Meissner has indicated she would enjoy that relationship, and Callaghan, who has guided skaters to Olympic, world and national titles, appears as though he would like to go to the Olympics again.

Callaghan, 61, worked wonders with Meissner's jumps and presentation in just five weeks, and he is a master of the politics and shifting sands of figure skating rules. If she doesn't re-up with him, it's a certainty another skater will take her place.

But that would mean relocating to Florida, where Callaghan has set up shop, a major change for a teenager who has lived at home her whole life.

"That would be hard," Meissner acknowledged.

Meissner's ultimate athletic goal is to make the U.S. team going to Vancouver in 2010 in what would be her second Winter Games. She would need to medal at both Grand Prix events next season - preferably two golds, but no less than a gold and a silver - have a respectable finish at the Grand Prix Final and regain her U.S. title.

Why?

At 18, Meissner needs to stay ahead of a hard-charging group of younger skaters who are gaining international experience. Rachael Flatt, 15, won the junior world title this year and was runner-up at senior nationals. At 14, Mirai Nagasu beat Flatt to the gold at nationals and was bronze medalist at junior worlds. Also 14, Caroline Zhang won 2007 junior worlds and was runner-up this year.

Those three will push Meissner and Ashley Wagner, 16, her teammate this week at worlds and the nationals bronze medalist.

"It's harder than it looks," Wagner admitted after a ragged long program dropped her from 11th to 16th. "I'm still learning."

So is Meissner, which is why she's reaching out to veteran champions.

Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan - Olympians all - have given her moral support.

Six-time U.S. champion Todd Eldredge, a fixture on the ice show touring circuit, has helped her with spins and salesmanship - connecting with the crowd and judges with smiles and gestures.

Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming has offered advice on the trappings of success - dresses and hairstyles - along with presentation tips. Fleming said Meissner needs to build a team to help her make smart choices about things such as music and choreography.

"All of those things make a winning package," Fleming said. "Kimmie made the first hard step when she changed coaches. Now, in the offseason, she needs to start to address the other areas. She's a courageous young lady and a fighter. I expect she'll do what she has to do."

Injuries, growth spurts and a loss of desire could alter the picture by the 2009 world championships. Figure skating history is filled with can't-miss athletes - "the next Michelle Kwan" - who disappeared.

"Ask me in a year," said two-time gold medalist and longtime TV analyst Dick Button in response to a question about the U.S. Olympic prospects. "So much can change. Believe me, so much can change."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com