Kimmie Meissner wouldn’t have predicted it when distanced from figure skating five years ago, but she couldn’t wait to watch the World Championships women’s short program after returning from her rink Thursday night.
Meissner is the last U.S. woman to capture a World or Olympic figure skating gold medal, taking a surprise title at the 2006 World Championships at age 16, one month after she placed sixth at the Torino Olympics.
No U.S. woman has earned an individual Olympic or Worlds medal of any color since Meissner and Sasha Cohen finished first and third at those Worlds.
The nine-year medal drought is the longest in America’s marquee winter sports event since 1924, when Beatrix Loughran earned a silver medal at the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, and bronze at the World Championships.
But that streak appears extremely likely to end at Boston’s TD Garden on Saturday night (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 9 ET). The gold-medal drought could snap, too.
U.S. champion Gracie Gold holds a slim 2.45-point lead following Thursday’s short program. Another American, three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, is in fourth place, 3.27 points back.
“I am so thrilled,” Meissner said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “It’s time for this to happen.”
Meissner is young enough to still be competing. She is 26, which is 19 months older than Wagner. Meissner and Wagner both competed at the 2008 World Championships.
But Meissner’s career ended for all intents and purposes in 2009, forced to give up on a 2010 Olympic run due to a dislocated right kneecap and subsequent tendinitis from trying to train through it.
“I couldn’t walk down steps,” she said.
Meissner suffered the knee injury in summer 2009, bailing on a triple Axel in practice. In mid-jump, she saw a little girl in the corner of her eye in her landing zone and hit the ice awkwardly.
The Olympics are every four years, and Meissner struggled to come to terms with being sidelined from the Winter Games in her prime.
“It was a really hard transition to be an elite athlete in skating to realize my body is not letting me do this,” she said. “Probably for about three years I was just really down about everything.”
Her mind was not in the right place to return to training once healthy.
“I completely distanced myself from skating for about two years,” said Meissner, a Maryland native. “I would kind of go to the rink and think about putting my skates on and think, no, I don’t want to do this. I just don’t like it. Probably for two years I didn’t pay attention to the figure skating world.”
In 2011 or 2012, a friend called Meissner and invited her to perform in a non-competitive skating show in California.
“I don’t want to do that anymore,” Meissner told him.
But she begrudgingly accepted, believing it would be a one-and-done deal. Until she laced up her skates and performed.
“Once I did that, I was like, I love skating,” Meissner said. “Why did I ever stop?”
Meissner thought returning to skating would be like riding a bike, but in fact she had lost all of the timing and jumps she crafted to become the third-youngest U.S. woman to win a World title six years earlier.
“Mentally I needed that break to separate myself and regroup a little bit,” she said. “It was really, really humbling coming back. I didn’t have any of my jumps anymore. I lost everything.”
Meissner thought about what it would be like to compete again, even at times in the last year as she regained the ability to perform triple jumps for shows.
“I find it hard to be at an event, because I feel like I should lace my skates up,” she said. “But that’s obviously not happening.
“I think to myself, oh wait a minute, I don’t want to do long programs,” Meissner said with a laugh.
Meissner became ensconced in skating at the Sochi 2014 Olympics, where she worked as a researcher for NBC.
It was there in Russia where she had a memorable conversation with her 2006 Olympic teammate, Michelle Kwan. Meissner told her idol that she still yearned to compete. Kwan said she missed it, too. That calmed Meissner.
“Once you’ve made it to that level in sport, you love it enough to put work and time into it, it’s never going to go away,” Meissner said. “Once I started hearing that from my peers, I was like, OK, it was easier to come to terms with.”
Meissner has coached the last few years at Ice World in Abingdon, Md., while also studying. She’s taking classes to become a physician’s assistant. She believes she can make time for both vocations.
Her pupils include seven girls and one boy between the ages of 10 and 15. One of her girls has skated at U.S. regionals twice and almost made sectionals, which is one step from the U.S. Championships.
“I would love to coach at Nationals,” Meissner said.
Meissner coached at the Abingdon rink on Thursday evening as Gold skated to the lead. Meissner constantly checked for updates on Twitter before getting home to pull up videos of the Americans’ short programs.
In 2006, Meissner used neither Twitter nor Facebook. She spread the word of her World title in Calgary via text messages and calls on her flip phone. She believes that a win by Gold or Wagner on Saturday could have a greater impact on the sport than when she came home with a gold medal the size of a Snapple cap a decade ago.
“Social media has really changed the way people receive athletes,” said Meissner, who sees her medal only a few times per year as it’s on display at the Sports Legends Museum in Baltimore. “Back in the day, you weren’t able to share in the moment.
“Hopefully it would bring more attention to the sport. I would love to see a rise in attendance at the events. I think this should really do it. Ashley, Gracie and Mirai [Nagasu, in 10th place after the short program] are really recognizable in the sport, to the fans.”
Meissner does not have coaching responsibilities Saturday night. She will gather with friends to watch the free skate on TV, hoping to shed the title of last U.S. woman to win a gold medal.
“I have a really hard time watching other people skate,” she repeated. “My anxiety level will be high.”