READING - Before yesterday afternoon's long programs at Skate America, Kimmie Meissner darted out onto the Sovereign Center ice like a bantamweight entering the ring.
The 18-year-old University of Delaware freshman bobbed her head, flexed her shoulders, and skated with an energetic side-to-side style that was more swagger than grace. And everywhere she looked, there were challenges.
In one corner was 2007 world champion Miki Ando, just a few points behind. In another was Emily Hughes, determined to end her 0-for-8 streak against Meissner. And there was Caroline Zhang, the formidable 14-year-old contender with a future as bright as her smile.
If that wasn't enough, in the judges' seats sat a crew of arbiters determined to make things tougher for Meissner and her gliding competitors this year.
In the end, although Meissner bobbed and weaved, stumbled and staggered through an uneven long program, she never got knocked out, and that was good enough to earn her the first Grand Prix triumph of her increasingly impressive career.
"I'm happy with how it went," said Meissner, the 2006 world champion and current U.S. titleholder, "considering it's a relatively new long program. It wasn't perfect, and there's a lot to improve on. But I'm pretty excited about the result."
Ando, the Japanese star who is nursing an aching shoulder, finished 1.34 points behind Meissner's winning total of 163.23.
Zhang, the diminutive world junior champion who was making her senior debut, more than held her own against the last two world champions. Her third-place score of 153.35 placed her ahead of Hughes, a Harvard freshman and sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes.
"I think I did pretty good," Zhang said. "It could have been a lot better, but I feel pretty good for my first time with the seniors."
All three medalists felt the sting of what appeared to be a scoring crackdown.
Zhang, who said she had never had a downgraded jump as a junior, had five yesterday, Meissner two and Ando one.
Pam Gregory, who coaches Meissner at the University of Delaware Skating Club, said they were warned before the season started that judges would no longer be tolerant of less-than-letter-perfect jumps and spins.
"But they say that every year," Gregory said. "The difference, I guess, is that this time it looks like they might really be serious about it."
Meissner, Ando and Zhang finished in the same order in the short program. Each of them stumbled in the season premiere of their long programs before a sparse crowd at the 7,000-seat arena.
With the stricter judging, "you really have to be sure about your jumps and sitz-spins," Meissner said, "and you have to be sure of what you're putting into your programs. This was definitely different than our normal competitions."
Zhang, who already might have more on-ice presence than any of her older rivals, appeared to enter her first few jumps with a nervous expression on her face.
She didn't fall on any, but the judges apparently didn't see what they were looking for, either.
"I wasn't hitting [the jumps] in warm-ups, so I was a little nervous," said the ninth grader from Brea, Calif., in explaining the uneasy look on her face.
Ando's shoulder problems prevented her from incorporating several traditional elements. She never seemed to approach the form that won her the world title in Tokyo last winter.
"My shoulder still hurts, and my training has not been good," she said.
Meissner skated to Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" in her four-minute presentation. She stumbled on an early triple lutz and landed awkwardly on a triple salchow.
But the second half of the performance was solid enough to get her a victory in the event that kicked off the 2007-08 season.
The winner said she would skip the next two Grand Prix events in Canada and China and would compete next in Paris, from Nov. 15 to 18.
Americans and Japanese took five of the six medals in the men's and women's competitions here.
On Saturday night, Japan's Daisuke Takahashi won the men's event. American Evan Lysacek was second and Canadian Patrick Chan third.
Earlier yesterday, American champs Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto captured the ice-dance competition in predictable fashion, with a score of 192.95.
France's Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat (181.84) took second; Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali (172.28) were third.
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.