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Meissner-Asada rivalry could be highlight of schedule

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NEW YORK (AP) _ A post-Olympic year usually is when young, unheralded figure skaters grab the spotlight. Kimmie Meissner and Mao Asada didn't bother to wait.

The teenagers got a nice jump on making headlines last season when Asada won the Grand Prix Final over Irina Slutskaya and other more renowned and experienced women. Then America's Meissner took the world championships.

Let their rivalry, perhaps spiced by triple axels, begin as Skate America opens the season on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut.

``I've been competing with her in the junior ranks, I really like her, she's very competitive,'' the 17-year-old Meissner said. ``I would always hang out with the Japanese skaters and try to figure out what they were saying and they would try to figure out what I was saying. It was a lot of fun.

``She's a great athlete and I look forward to competing with her.''

Asada was 15 when she won the Grand Prix Final last December, then she landed two triple axels in the Japanese championships. But she was too young to skate at the Turin Olympics or the world championships, so much of the skating public was unable to see the rising star.

She will be in Hartford for the first of six Grand Prix meets leading to the final in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December.

``I experienced many things throughout last season, so I hope it really helps for this season,'' said Asada, who is being coached by Rafael Arutunian, who last worked with Michelle Kwan. ``I think I can show what I have done through practice so far.''

The Meissner-Asada matchup is the most intriguing story in women's skating now that Kwan, Slutskaya and Olympic bronze medalist Sasha Cohen aren't planning Grand Prix appearances. None is expected to compete this season.

And the triple axel adds spice to the budding rivalry. Asada is likely to try the 3 1/2-revolution jump every time she laces up her skates, and Meissner has been hitting it consistently in practices after skipping it last season to concentrate on overall improvement.

The most improvement came at the worlds, where she surged to the gold medal with a spectacular free skate.

``I definitely carried that high through the shows and the summer,'' said Meissner, a student at Fallston High School in Maryland. ``I had maybe one week where I took a breath and came down, and now I am really geared up and training, although I still think about it and how it felt at worlds in Calgary. It's made me look forward to this season.''

Other Olympians entered in women's competition at Skate America are American Emily Hughes, Switzerland's Sarah Meier, Australia's Joanne Carter, Japan's Miki Ando, Canada's Mira Leung, and Finland's Kiira Korpi. Another talented young American, Katy Taylor, also will skate, as will Asada's sister, Mai.

Two-time world bronze medalist Evan Lysacek and Japan's Nobunari Oda are the top men at Hartford. They'll get an early start on the season and eventually figure to meet up with two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, Johnny Weir of the United States, Brian Joubert of France, Daisuke Takahashi of Japan and Turin bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle of Canada.

China's world champion pairs, Pang Qing and Tong Jian, will face veteran Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin Jr. at Skate America. The Chinese are expected to dominate the discipline this season.

Will it be difficult to rekindle the passion so many skaters needed for an Olympic season?

``A letdown?'' Meissner asked. ``I don't feel it. I am very serious about this year, I would love to repeat worlds. And there are new challenges. I never did Skate America, so I'd love to see what that is all about.''
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