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Good start to season for Meissner, Belbin and Agosto

READING, Pa. — The matchup of world champions came down to who made fewer mistakes.

And the winner was American Kimmie Meissner.

Meissner, the U.S. champion and 2006 world gold medalist, edged current world champ Miki Ando of Japan at Skate America even though Ando won Sunday's free skate. It was strikingly similar to Saturday's results in the men's event, when Japan's Daisuke Takahashi won even though U.S. champion Evan Lysacek took the free skate.

Ando looked relieved to get off the ice after her uninspiring long program that included some weak spins and even a wobble on one of them. Still, her score of 105.31 was enough to put her on top of the leaderboard with the 18-year-old Meissner yet to skate.

Then Meissner popped a triple lutz and was plagued by several slow spins, although the conclusion of her four-minute program was more alive than Ando's. She was downgraded on two jumps.

Meissner watched her scores get posted and was unsure who had won. She covered her mouth and shrugged with a smile when she was shown in first place.

"It wasn't perfect, but I am so excited, it's my first Grand Prix win," Meissner said. "It's good to know what I have to work on. I will be better for nationals."

Then the native of Bel Air, Md., stood on a platform and greeted dozens of fans, many of them having made the two-hour drive from back home.

Newcomer Caroline Zhang, the world junior champion from Brea, Calif., finished third in her first senior event. After a stunning performance in the short program the previous day, Zhang was marked down on five jumps, leaving the 14-year-old junior high schooler and her coach wondering.

"I'm surprised by that," she said. "I didn't really expect it, but I'll get to work harder and try to get it cleaner."

Her coach, Ming Zhu Li, said Zhang never lost points for her under-rotating jumps in the past.

Ando, bothered by a right shoulder injury she indicated could need surgery, finished second to Meissner by 2.66 points. She won the free skate by 1.32 points.

Earlier, four-time U.S. champs, ranked first in the world in ice dancing, won all three portions of their event this weekend. They put the finishing touches on their fourth Skate America crown Sunday with a flowing, romantic free skate to music by Chopin.

The classical music was a departure from what the Americans usually skate to. And it worked exceptionally well in the first Grand Prix series competition of the season.

"This was really our best debut of a new free dance in quite a few years," Belbin said. "We were glad to get in as many elements as we did. We really got a feel for how much potential it has and we were really able to enjoy it."

The 2006 Olympic silver medalists had a misstep or two on the way to a score of 97.68 points, well ahead of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France. But they also had some impressive moments, particularly one lift in which Agosto, using both arms, twisted Belbin around, then supported her with his right arm only as she continued twisting.

Overall, Belbin and Agosto had 192.95 points to 181.84 for Pechalat-Bourzat. Third were Italians Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali with 172.28, even though Scali fell in footwork.

"The mistake, when it's at the beginning of a program, you always have to keep your mind focused on what you have to do," Scali said.

Belbin and Agosto spent many hours looking for the proper classical music during the summer and came up empty. Then Chopin was suggested. They listened, and they were hooked.

"We've known we wanted to do classical," Belbin said. "The last time we did it was in 1999, our first free dance as seniors. It's really nice to learn how to express classical music. It has a great amount of depth."

This was the best finish in a Grand Prix event for Pechalat and Bourzat.

"We felt quite good today," Bourzat said. "It was not as good as in training, but it was almost without mistakes. We know we need work on it; this was the first competition."