GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Kimmie Meissner spent her childhood trying to keep up with three older brothers in soccer and lacrosse, so they'd let her join their teams. After figure skating became her passion, she tried keeping up with the best in the world.
"I definitely wanted to push the sport a little bit technically," says Meissner, 28, explaining the impact of seeing Japan's Miki Ando practice a quadruple jump at her first junior world championships, in 2004. "I thought, 'I need to push myself. I need to start going for it.'"
The result catapulted Meissner to gold at figure skating's 2006 World Championship. She also became only the second American woman (after Tonya Harding in 1991) to land the risky triple axel in competition.
But since then, no female U.S. figure skater has won a world championship. The gold-medal drought for American women has lasted longer on the Olympic stage - dating from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, where Sarah Hughes, an 11th-grade honors student from Long Island, edged Russia's Irina Slutskaya as Olympic champion. Since then, Olympic gold in women's figure skating has belonged to Russia and Japan.
If a figure skating generation is six years, as veteran coach Audrey Weisiger believes, it has been nearly three generations since American women dominated the Olympic discipline that 50 years was synonymous with California's Peggy Fleming.
After Fleming's gold at the 1968 Grenoble Games, a subsequent generation of American girls got haircuts to match the bouncy bob of Dorothy Hamill, so captivated by her gold-medal performance at the 1976 Olympics. American women reasserted their dominance in the 1990s, via Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski, Olympic gold medalists in 1992 and 1998, while Michelle Kwan elevated artistry and technical precision to new heights en route to five world championships and Olympic silver and bronze.
Then came a huge gap, with the U.S. women taking a back seat to their counterparts in Russia and Japan, who have dominated the Olympic podium for the past 16 years.
Several factors explain why American women have receded from the world stage:
● Russia, which historically set the standard in ice dance, has made women's singles a priority in recent years, producing champion after champion.
"They have probably 50 girls in the country, all teenagers, and all can do triple-triples and all are vying for [an Olympic] spot," noted Weisiger, a two-time Olympic team coach who is based in Fairfax, Virginia.
● Japan, a country in which figure skating champions Mao Asada and Yuzuru Hanyu, have movie-star status, has sustained its long-standing excellence in the sport.
● Young American female skaters fell behind in technical ability under a scoring system in the U.S. developmental ranks that, for a few years, valued perfect execution of less rigorous programs over less-than-perfect ambitious ones. The unintended effect discouraged many young skaters from pushing their limits, proving a disincentive to master triple jumps when pristine doubles were a safer way to accumulate points.
"For two or three years we had a generation of girls not learning to do triples because the reward did not outweigh the risk in scoring," Weisiger explained. "We had girls that could have been much better technically but were not being pushed."
Added Meissner, who bucked the trend, determined to test her limits despite the risk: "It's almost like it wasn't rewarded when you tried a harder element. When you missed it, you had a devastating blow [in your scores]. You would have no chance to stay within the medal range."
There have been more subtle, cultural factors at play in the view of veteran coach Frank Carroll, a World Figure Skating Hall of Fame inductee who worked with Kwan, among many U.S. champions, and helped American Evan Lysacek to the men's Olympic gold in 2010.
In his experience, Carroll said, the Asian skaters he has coached bring uncommon discipline to the rink.
"They are taught discipline from Day One," Carroll said, "which is different from American kids, who are now taught, 'Oh dear, you have a right to stand up for whatever you think!'"
Moreover, Carroll noted, it hasn't helped that figure skating's popularly has waned in the United States since what he refers to as "the whack heard round the world" - a reference to the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer. The battle between the recovering Kerrigan and her complicit rival Tonya Harding resulted in a TV ratings bonanza.
But Carroll bristles at the suggestion that U.S. women's figure skating is in a "drought," pointing to Mirai Nagasu's fourth-place finish at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Gracie Gold's fourth at the 2014 Sochi Games and Ashley Wagner's second-place finish at the 2016 world championships.
"I hardly think we're in a drought because they're not standing on the podium," Carroll said, adding a mocking, "'Oy my God! How horrible! Our American skaters are worthless! They're just terrible!'"
Weisiger, for one, sees better times ahead for U.S. women because of a new approach by U.S. Figure Skating. There has been a shift toward awarding bonuses for attempting rigorous double axels and triples. The sport also has introduced international selection-pool camps in Colorado Springs each summer and invited "mentor coaches," such as Weisiger, to take part.
But the turnaround isn't expected at this month's Pyeongchang Games, where the women's competition gets underway with the short programs Feb. 21. It could produce a podium sweep for Russian skaters, who won't be competing for country (as a result of International Olympic Committee sanctions against evidence of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Games) but under the banner Olympic Athletes from Russia.
The U.S. women competing for medals in singles (as opposed to ice dance or pairs) consist of Bradie Tennell, 20; Nagasu, 24; and Karen Chen, 18, who won gold, silver and bronze, respectively, at last month's U.S. championships.
Tennell crushed her American challengers to win her first national championship, landing seven triple jumps with a technically eye-popping program. But while she boasts the highest international score of any American woman entering her Olympic debut, she is still developing the artistry and maturity that international judges tend to favor.
Since being left off the 2014 team, Nagasu, who finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics, has devoted herself to perfecting the difficult triple axel (which requires three-and-a-half rotations in the air). But it would likely take sterling execution of both attempts - one in her short program, another in her long - for Nagasu to finish on the medal podium here. Chen, the 2017 U.S. champion, is a first-time Olympian like Tennell.
Meissner, who now coaches young skaters part-time, is encouraged by the rising technical ambition she sees in the current generation of U.S. junior competitors. And this month, she'll be cheering for the U.S. women in Pyeongchang, especially hopeful that Nagasu will land her triple axel on the Olympics stage.
"I'm all for it," Meissner said. "Sometimes I think, it has been 11, 12, 13 years since the last time I did it. And I'd love to see it become a normal thing for U.S. women."