Chatting With Kimmie Meissner

kimmiemeissner1.jpgAfter posting about Boston area skating rinks and the lack of media buzz in advance of the recent US Nationals, I was offered the wonderful opportunity to chat with Kimmie Meissner, national and world figure skating champion, member of the 2006 Olympic team, and 2010 Olympic contender. Read on for my interview with Kimmie, where we talk about everything from competitions, to shows (she’ll be in Boston in April for Stars on Ice), to the amazing family that has kept her grounded, to tips for skating safely with kids.

+ + + + +

Christine: Hi Kimmie, first allow me to say that it’s truly a pleasure and an honor to chat with you, as I have followed your career with interest and admiration. Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview.

Kimmie: Oh, thank you so much. I’m happy to do it.

Christine: I’d like to cover several topics, but let’s start with competitions. The last couple of years have been a bit of a roller coaster for you. You won the 2006 World Championships as the 16-year-old underdog, won the US and Four Continents titles in 2007, and then 2008 proved more challenging at Nationals, Worlds, and on the Grand Prix circuit. Do you have a sense of what contributed to the struggles in 2008? Was it the newfound pressure and expectation, the revised judging system, coach burnout, physical ailments? A bit of all of the above?

Kimmie: It was pretty much all of the above. A lot of things happened to me…obviously having to change coaches was hard…there just were a lot of personal things going on and it affected my skating. Obviously, if I’m not feeling comfortable or happy it’s going to show in my skating.

And yes, a lot of the judging system changes have been challenging…things have changed a lot. But you just have to keep on top of it and keep changing with the system. I think I’m starting to get it down!

Christine: Actually, I read somewhere that part of what you’ve been working on with Todd Eldredge and your new coach Richard Callaghan has been breaking down and relearning jumps. It must be enormously challenging to do that after having done it one way for 10 some odd years.

Kimmie: It is! Even just the littlest things like changing your arm positioning. It makes a huge difference and it takes a while until you get to the point where it is like body memory. I’ve been training my jumps in a totally different way. I’m still working on it.

Christine: I totally know what you mean. I actually used to be a competitive violinist and as you said, you learn body memory and it’s really hard to relearn things.

Kimmie: Exactly. And wow, I’ve always wanted to play the violin. I mean, I played it for a little bit and I just love the instrument.

Christine: Well, it’s a really hard instrument to play well. And unfortunately, it’s not a very forgiving instrument when you’re first learning! Anyway, OK, back to skating! After the 2008 nationals you made a major decision to uproot from your family to train with Richard Callaghan in Florida. This must have been incredibly difficult, being your first time away from home. What have been the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of being apart from your family?

Kimmie: The most challenging – definitely that it’s been really hard to be away from my family. We’re pretty tight knit. Even all of my brothers live within 30 minutes of my parents’ house, so it was a big change and I definitely miss being around them…just being with them. But in being away I also have become more independent and responsible. So I have matured, but at the same time I’d do anything to be up there with them.

Christine: Do you think at some point it would be possible to return home and train? Although, I guess you have to follow your coach.

Kimmie: Yes, I need to stay here to work with my coach.

Christine: You know, despite the ups and downs of your last couple of years I truly feel as if I’ve never seen anything but utter grace and a remarkable well grounded-ness from you. I assume that your family plays a role in this - as a parent, I certainly hope so! What’s the best advice your parents ever gave you when you were down? Or up, for that matter.

Kimmie: I think my parents pretty much always believed in me even when I was going through rough patches. I know that I can always go to them with my problems and that is so comforting. It helps me to be able to sort things out with them. And they help me remember that’s it important to keep skating fun.

Christine: That’s great – especially the idea of really trying to remember that the point is to have fun. From my experience with violin, it can be hard to keep that in mind when you’re doing something so intense that requires so many hours. And it’s challenging for parents - not to mention when you have a world-renowned star in the family - not to get on that roller coaster of push, push, push. It’s impressive.

Kimmie: Thank you. I really am grateful for my family on that!

Christine: So as a prominent athlete in a popular sport, and as someone who is involved in community work [Kimme devotes time to Cool Kids Campaign, an organization that works to improve the quality of life for pediatric oncology patients and their families], you’re obviously a role model for kids, which is a big responsibility. What do you hope that kids can learn and model from you?

Kimmie: I really just hope that kids can learn that they can believe in their dreams and that they can do what they want. I always dreamed of competing on the world stage, and it hasn’t always been easy, but if you really want it and put your mind to it, you can do it. I know it sounds cliché but I really do believe in it; I want kids to really believe in their dreams.

Photo credit: Cool Kids Campaign

Christine: Just yesterday I took my 4-year-old daughter skating for the first time and we had such a fun, clumsy time of it! You started skating at age 6. Do you have any recommendations or safety precautions to share with parents interested in introducing little ones to the ice? Not necessarily to become figure skating stars, but more generally speaking.

Kimmie: I think the best thing is if they want to go around by themselves to let them go. But then one of the good things to learn is how to fall properly.

Christine: Oh yes, tell me more about that! I could use that!

Kimmie: When you go down, obviously try to have your hands protect you, and then get up as soon as possible because you don’t want to just sit there on the ice. It’s cold and you don’t want to stiffen up, plus you don’t want someone to skate by and accidentally injure your fingers or something!

Christine: Oh right, good idea! Also, I dressed Laurel in snowpants, parka, and mittens for warmth and padding and also had her wear her bike helmet, although she actually didn’t crash and burn that much. I should say that she was so excited when I told her I was going to talk to you today. She loves figure skating and even as a four-year-old, she loves watching with me, ooh’ing and aah’ing over the “cool tricks.” She really loves the spins.

Kimmie: Aww, really? That’s so great! And yes, that’s great that you used a helmet for safety. Very important.

kimmiemeissner4.bmpChristine: OK, so moving on to shows. Starting this month you’re slated to make eight appearances as a guest performer with Smucker’s Stars on Ice, including the Boston show on April 5, which I’m thrilled you’ll be performing at! Obviously the pressure isn’t the same as for traditional competitions but can you share some insight into how you prepare for tours vs. regular competition? What is your favorite thing about being part of the tour?

Kimmie: My favorite part of being on tour is that you really become a family. It’s great – we all get really close, we’re on the buses together, and it’s so fun and you want to go out and skate well. When I skated with the tour last year every time I came off the ice the guys always did the group number after so I would walk out and it would be high fives all around. And we did the same thing every night. It was so funny and silly, you just get into doing something. We have a lot of fun.

As far as getting ready you have to train your programs because you want to go out and do well but the great thing about the show is that there’s no pressure. You can just go out and have fun and do whatever you want.

Christine: Actually, it occurs to me, with competitions you have to a certain number of triples and other elements but for a show do they make any recommendations about spins, spirals, jumps, etc.?

Kimmie: Nope, you can do whatever you want. I mean, they’ll watch your program and if they have any suggestions they’ll tell you, but it’s never as formal as competition where you have to hold a pose for 3 seconds or do a certain number of jumps.

Christine: Actually, on that, I honestly don’t know how you all negotiate the technical requirements. As a former musician, that would drive me crazy in the sense that as a performer and artist, I imagine you just want to go with the music and express the music without worrying about how many seconds you are holding a position.

Kimmie: Yes, it’s frustrating sometimes because you can’t always be right on the music and you have to hold things a certain way. My choreographer and I are always trying to make it as musical as we can, and it’s sometimes very hard to fit all the elements in. You definitely sometimes just want to move to the music.

Christine: Going back to your comment about family…the Stars on Ice roster includes such an interesting mix of seasoned performers, recent Olympic medalists, and Olympic contenders. What is that vibe like? Are skaters ever star-struck by one another? Or does a lot of mentoring result from the presence of different skating generations?

Kimmie: Both. I’d say I’ve been pretty star-struck at times. Like when I first met Sasha [Cohen] I couldn’t stop laughing because I was so giddy. And I know I work with him now, but the first time I met Todd [Eldredge] I was so quiet and overwhelmed. So yes, I definitely get star-struck by other skaters!

As for mentoring, people are really great about trying to help on the ice. Ilia [Kulik] is like the coach of everyone – he’ll come sit down and watch and give a critique and then go to the next person. He loves to coach and is so nice. And you know, Evan [Lysacek] and I have these competitions going back and forth. You know, things like how many triples can you do in a row.

Christine: Oh my, I can just imagine the coaches being like, “Don’t injure yourself!”

Kimmie: Yeah I know – just don’t tell the coaches!

Christine: So I know I’m seeing it all from the outside, with the exception of talking to you today of course, but I really can see those dynamics playing out. Everyone just seems so lovely.

Kimmie: Everyone is really down to earth and they’re just really genuinely nice people. You couldn’t ask for more.

Christine: Actually, that leads me to my next question. Stars on Ice is produced by Scott Hamilton, who I just can’t imagine has an enemy in the world. Is he as adorable in real life as he appears in the media? Has he ever shared any nuggets of wisdom with you regarding how to handle the roller coaster of competitive figure skating?

Kimmie: He is! And he definitely has been one of my mentors. He’s always taking the time to talk to me. Like when I made it to the Olympics in 2006. After my short program I had made a mistake and he came over to me after and said, “Wherever you are in your short program, you can always change it in your long program. Don’t give up.” And it was just so nice, he didn’t just pass me in the hallway. He stopped and it just made me feel like, “Wow, OK, I’m ready. I can do this.” He’s always been like that – he takes the time with people.

Christine: So this is totally off topic but in a weird way I feel connected to Scott Hamilton. I’m actually also a graphic designer and when he and his wife had their baby I had the opportunity to design something for a baby shower basket for them and I designed these baby figure skating thank you cards. So they were exclusively for Scott and his wife, and I was just so ridiculously excited about it because I’m a figure skating fan. So anytime I see him on TV now I’m like, “Oh, he had my cards!”

Kimmie: Oh, that's great! That’s so cool!

Christine: OK, now, looking to the future. I know you must have been so disappointed about the injury that prevented you from competing at Nationals. And there’s so much uncertainty about the women’s field as the 2010 Olympics approach. Although I don’t know, the media is so negative about it but I think it’s kind of exciting – there are so many people in the mix. After having made an impressive 6th place finish in your Olympic debut in 2006, what are your plans as you look forward to making a run for the 2010 Olympics? I mean, I assume you are making a run. Um, are you?

Kimmie: Oh yes! Actually, no, I don’t want to go to the Olympics [laughs]. Seriously though, yes, I definitely want to and I’m going to try to make it back to the Olympics. But right now, honestly, I really just have to take it one step at a time. I really have to regroup after the injury not allowing me to compete at Nationals. So, I'm approaching the Olympics as a long-term goal, even though they're not that far away. I just have to take things slowly now.

Photo credit: Vancouver 2010

Christine: And I guess everybody is watching closely because the upcoming World’s determine whether the US women get 2 or 3 spots at the 2010 Olympics.

Kimmie: Yes, I’m really pulling for those girls [Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt]. I’m really hoping that they do it!

Christine: I know, and personally I was just thrilled to see Alissa win at Nationals because after all, it’s ladies figure skating. I know it’s so trite to say that and I wish all the competitors well but I’m pulling for all of you who are – as ridiculous as it sounds – “veterans.” It was awesome to have someone win who is 21. It’s great for everyone.

Kimmie: Yes, I was really happy to see that!

Christine: OK, I actually have a couple of final family related questions if you have time… I’m actually from a family of seven so I’m always interested in family dynamics. As the youngest of four and the only girl, not to mention a world champion athlete, how has your family tried to keep things in check so that at the heart of it, you’re still just one of the kids?

Kimmie: Uh, my family has no problem with that! My brothers definitely help me stay grounded. They have no issues. They see me only as Kimmie. It’s great.

Christine: Are you all in touch frequently? Do you keep in touch over Facebook or whatever, if you can’t talk every day?

Kimmie: Yes, text messaging or somehow. We’re really close.

Christine: And finally, you know, they always show shots around the crowd at competitions. I was wondering what your family’s spectator personality is when it comes to your competitions. Do they come watch, or can’t bear to know until it is over?

Kimmie: My family gets a lot more nervous then I do actually. I know that my mom and dad won’t sit together. My dad usually is up in the rafters – hiding – and my mom is generally not sitting down. She usually has to be moving. I think my brothers can sit and watch, but my parents get really nervous.

Christine: I can only imagine – you’re seeing your baby out there and it’s so pressured and judged and public.

Kimmie: I know, I get so nervous for my friends when I see them in competition that I can’t imagine what my parents go through having to watch their kid. It’s just funny, I’m always telling them, “It’s OK, don’t worry!”

Christine: Is there anything else you want me to know or report on?

Kimmie: Well, we covered a lot, but I really think everyone should come out to Stars on Ice – it’s such a great show. So fun. That says it all!

Christine: It’s been so fantastic to chat with you Kimmie - you’re just as lovely and down to earth as I imagined you would be. And I’m so happy to share this interview with my readers. I’m really looking forward to seeing you perform at Stars on Ice in Boston come April!

Kimmie: Thanks Christine!

+ + + + +

Image 1 credit: Stars on Ice