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Figure skaters are ready for another season

October 24, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

FROM EVERETT, WASH. — This is when figure skaters want to pique, not peak.

When they put together new costumes, music and a summer's worth of work and anxiously submit to the scrutiny of judges and audiences for the first time.

Skate America, the first major competition of the season, begins today in Everett, Wash., and its significance goes beyond being the opener of the annual six-event Grand Prix series.

This year, it will be the first step to the world championships, to be held in March at Staples Center.

The result of the world championships will determine the number of entries countries can send to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. And the Winter Games will be very much on the minds of the 12 women, 10 men, eight pairs and nine ice dance teams scheduled to compete this weekend at the Comcast Arena.

Getting a strong start on the buildup to the Olympics was incentive for Kimmie Meissner, who has struggled since she won the 2006 world championship and 2007 U.S. title, to make a move and a coaching change.

Meissner, 19 now and on the far side of a growth spurt at 5-foot-4, left her family in Bel Air, Md., and longtime coach Pam Gregory to train with Richard Callaghan and Todd Eldredge in Coral Springs, Fla. Callaghan coached 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski; Eldredge is a six-time U.S. champion.

Together, they're teaching her how to stroke, hold her arms, and inhabit her programs instead of performing by rote.

"I just kind of want to get my confidence back in competing," said Meissner, who was seventh at last season's U.S. and world championships.

Five-time U.S. ice dance champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, frustrated by a lack of progress, left the Detroit area for Aston, Pa., and the guidance of coaches Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karpanosov.

"It has been a very exciting few months now," Agosto said. "I definitely feel that Skate America is going to be a great debut for the new Tanith and new Ben."

The old Tanith and Ben were stale. Finishing fourth at this year's world championships after three straight top-three finishes and a silver medal at the Turin Olympics "definitely was a slap in the face," Agosto said. "That was a wake-up call. We had to stop and look at what was going on."

Knowing that the Vancouver Games could be his last shot at an Olympic medal led three-time U.S. men's champion Johnny Weir to leave Delaware and coach Priscilla Hill last season and move to New Jersey, where he works with a trio of Russians.

He doesn't fully understand their language but grasps that Galina Zmievskaya and Viktor and Nina Petrenko are trying to mold him into a champion. He made the top three in every competition he entered last season, except for a fourth-place finish at the Grand Prix final.

"Skate America is a very valuable steppingstone to achieving what I want later in the season," said Weir, who has never competed in this event, "and I think Skate America will be interesting."

All of these skaters will be part of a field drawn from 15 countries.

The senior-level international debut of U.S. women's champion Mirai Nagasu of Arcadia will be a tough test. In addition to Meissner, the field includes U.S. silver medalist Rachael Flatt of Del Mar, 2007 world champion Miki Ando of Japan, two-time world bronze medalist Yu-Na Kim of Korea, and 2008 world fourth-place finisher Yukari Nakano of Japan.

Evan Lysacek, who won the last two U.S. men's titles while training in El Segundo, and Weir lead a men's field that was thinned when Kevin Van der Perren of Belgium withdrew because of an injury.

In pairs, U.S. champions Keauna McLaughlin of Tarzana and Rockne Brubaker, and runners-up Rena Inoue and John Baldwin of Santa Monica, will be able to measure themselves against world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.

In dance, Belbin and Agosto will compete against world champions Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France, a duo they must beat to win the world and Olympic titles they crave. That hunger inspired them to go back to basics and make changes they hope will be evident this weekend.

"Our coaches just said, 'Trust us. You need this. We can't just cover up your weaknesses in choreography anymore,' " Belbin said.

"We have to fix that and think about the Olympics. If you can get stronger now and build on that all the way up to the Olympics then you actually have a chance of being unbeatable."

Their first opportunity to grab that chance arrives today.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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