By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- It looked, for a while, like an ordinary figure skating training session. Several young women executed jumps, rehearsed footwork and stole sips from water bottles as their coaches stood rinkside at Incredible Ice.
But then former world champion Kimmie Meissner fell hard attempting a jump and bungled two others during a run-through of the short program that she plans to unveil next month at Skate America, the season-opening international event.
Suddenly, renowned coach Richard Callaghan, who has been tutoring Meissner in this affluent South Florida community for just over six months, burst from the coaching box and skated across the ice. Retired skater Todd Eldredge, a six-time national champion and longtime Callaghan student who has become his coaching sidekick, followed.
With a mix of words, body language and skating maneuvers, Callaghan and Eldredge dissected Meissner's program and performance, immersing themselves in a tiny piece of what has become an exhaustive joint project to revive her career.
A celebrated 16-year-old world champion just over two years ago, Meissner saw her season crumble last winter, bottoming out in January with a mistake-laden seventh-place finish at the U.S. championships. That drove her from her home in Bel Air, Md., and Pam Gregory, her coach of five years, to this rink in a palm tree-shrouded suburb just east of the Florida Everglades.
Only after a section of choreography had been redone, and Meissner had nailed four clean double axels, did Callaghan retreat to the coaching box, and normalcy seemed to return. Or was the mid-workout flurry on the ice normal?
After the session, as Meissner unlaced her skates -- and Callaghan and Eldredge resumed an animated discussion of her program -- she noted that, at her previous training home at the University of Delaware Figure Skating Club, no coach ever stepped on the ice to teach during workouts. It simply was not done.
Nowadays, Meissner said with a grin, she often feels like a running back in the open field.
"One of the weirdest things, when I got down here, was, 'Oh my gosh, they are skating with me, chasing me around the rink,' " said Meissner, who turns 19 on Oct. 4.
"Todd makes me go faster. He's always saying, 'Go! I'm going to beat you!' . . . They come out, they look at takeoffs, they want to see landings."
So much of Meissner's life has been turned upside down, it's difficult to say what change has been the most significant, or caused the most upheaval. Desperate to get out of last season's maddening slump, Meissner sought out Callaghan on the advice of Eldredge, whom she had consulted for his expertise on spins after finishing sixth -- dead last -- at the International Skating Union Grand Prix Final last December.
After the debacle at the U.S. championships, she felt she could endure her training situation no longer and impulsively jumped to Callaghan without committing to a long-term relationship. She wanted out of her situation in Delaware but could not fathom a permanent move so far away from her close-knit family. While training in Newark, Meissner, the youngest of four siblings and only girl, had lived at home, making the 60-mile commute daily.
To ease the transition when she first moved, her mother joined her for a while, but Meissner is now on her own.
"I go through withdrawal symptoms all the time," she said. "But it's worth it."
She has found company in her occasional misery: One of the young women she trains with is also living alone, having tagged along with Callaghan from his old training home near Detroit. Meissner has taken an annual lease on a two-bedroom apartment, put off her schooling for at least the next semester, worked on her tan and, for now, accepted the fact she is on a two-year training plan.
From her vantage point, she has grown up significantly. Who would question that given the music -- the piano music -- she selected for this season's short program: "Un Ange Passe" by Alain Lefevre?
"It was really intimidating when I first came down here," Meissner said. "[But now] I feel like I'm a different person. I've gone through some stuff that wasn't too good. I feel like I've changed a lot . . . A lot of times from really bad experiences you can learn a lot."
Callaghan -- still "Mr. Callaghan" to Meissner -- has learned, too.
During his 36-year coaching career, he has tutored some of the world's top skaters. Besides Eldredge, he guided Tara Lipinski to the 1998 Olympic gold medal. He also trained Nicole Bobek, Shizuka Arakawa and Jennifer Kirk.
When Eldredge told him that Meissner was looking for a new coach, he found himself intrigued and daunted. He had just decided to escape Michigan's cold winters for Florida. As moving trucks carted away his furniture just weeks before the world championships, Meissner's mother called. A deal was quickly in place.
"It was scary," Callaghan said. "[I was] going to worlds with a world champion who is having problems, and I don't know her."
Noted for his demanding ways, Callaghan said he approached Meissner with uncustomary patience and delicacy, determined to ensure that she rediscover her love for the sport. Both were buoyed when she managed a respectable seventh place at the worlds in Gothenburg, Sweden. Still, sensing the depth of Meissner's wounds from the previous season, Callaghan waited months to levy even mild criticisms, a precaution he hadn't considered necessary with his other stars.
"They all bring talent to the table, but their heads are all so different," Callaghan said. "I've never experienced someone that good with that lack of confidence. That's why I've been careful."
Even so, there has been plenty of technical massaging. Callaghan has worked with Meissner on the entrance to her triple flip to ensure she isn't penalized by the sport's judges for going off the wrong edge of her skate (a problem last season). Eldredge, meantime, has made it his mission to speed up her skating, convinced that faster footwork offers two benefits: It is more appealing to judges while also bringing more power to the jumps that follow, ensuring a greater success rate.
"I've been doing pretty good," Meissner said. "I'm at maybe a 'B,' if I have to give myself a grade. I'm pretty close to where I want to be, but I'm still working out the kinks in my program."
Eldredge said Meissner, who at 15 became the first U.S. woman since Tonya Harding to land a triple axel, has improved dramatically since last winter, appearing happier and stronger on the ice. But, he noted, jumps don't come as easily as they used to. And, Eldredge said, one of her best traits often works against her in competition.
"She's the nicest person in the world," he said. "She's sweet and kind-hearted. As a skater, that's the only thing I would change about her: her fight. She's too nice. It's just not her personality, but I'd like to see her more aggressive."
Indeed, rather than trying to unleash some sort of internal animal, Meissner seems to prefer to settle into a zone of mental comfort and physical readiness. She wants nothing to do with the unrest of last season, a point she makes clear by looking away and waving her hands in protest when queried about it. "No," she said pleadingly, "I don't want to think about it."
She will discuss her failures only generically, saying she never got her head in the right place and wound up entering competitions feeling unprepared.
Meissner seems to have found peace in Florida. She is at the rink from 8:50 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., so she packs a lunch, then heads to the gym or Pilates classes before calling it a day. She goes to the beach, movies and restaurants on weekends, and she has occasionally chatted with members of the NHL's Florida Panthers, who share the practice facility.
None, she said, seems to have any idea who she is, a fact she finds amusing. Indeed, after a recent practice session, Meissner smiled almost constantly as she talked about her new life.
"I love working with Mr. Callaghan," she said. "He's very, very nice. He probably wouldn't want me to say that -- he's got his reputation -- but he's been great for me."
Said Callaghan: "I want her to know how good she is. . . . I want her to feel good about herself."
"But," he added, turning serious, "I would like results."