Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski talks about her big win, Olympic preparation and more.
Olympic figure-skater-turned-commentator Tara Lipinski is the youngest Olympic gold medalist in the ladies singles event, becoming a champion at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan.
Lipinski is also the 1997 world champion, a two-time Champions Series Final champion and a U.S. national champion. She's the youngest ever to win a World Figure Skating Championships title.
She turned professional shortly after the 1998 Olympics, touring for six years. Then Lipinski became a figure skating analyst and broadcaster.
Lipinski appeared as a commentator for NBC for the 2014 Sochi Games with skater Johnny Weir and will once again join the network in PyeongChang, but this time as the lead crew.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Lipinski to chat about her career, the Olympic games and the 20th anniversary of her gold medal.
(Editor's Note: The following interview was lightly edited and condensed).
Charlotte Carroll: It’s been 20 years since your Olympic gold medal, can you take us back to your Olympic experience?
Tara Lipinski: It’s such a crazy event to be a part of. As an athlete, as a skater, you spend your entire life [preparing], you go to Nationals and Worlds and know what to expect. Then, you walk into the Opening Ceremony of an Olympic games and just become so overwhelmed cause it’s so much bigger than you, than your sport. The whole world is watching, and you don’t know how to really deal with the pressure of that and there’s so much riding on the line.
Six minutes in figure skating can determine your career. And for me, I was really young and I just remember I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my life. I stayed in the village. I wasn’t with my parents or my coaches because I really wanted to experience every part of the Olympics, and I’m so glad I did that. But I went the day of my free skate, the long program, to see my parents. We did our traditional pregame meal, had some pasta, usually it would be fun, relaxing, not thinking the stress would ensue. For some reason, I just was like, "I can’t do it, call it off Mom, tell them I’m not going out there, this is not happening today.” And she was like, “OK, I’m so proud of you.” And then I was like, “Wait, wait, no I’m going go do it.” I do remember feeling like I was just melting down that day under the pressure. When I stood on the ice, when they called my name, my legs were shaking. I was like, “Well this is new and I definitely need these to get through this program.” Then all of the sudden, you’re an athlete, you train for this moment, you realize you’re in charge of your destiny at that point. I just remember getting a little angry, “OK, Tara, pull it in, you know how to do this.” Then you kind of, cliche as it sounds, go into that zone.
CC: Did you feel that age difference when you were there?
TL: I look back now, when you’re 15, you don’t realize you’re that young. You’re like, “I’m the same age as everyone.” The cool thing was at the village, all of the athletes, they all were so welcoming and warm and made me feel a part of it. And like I said, I was so focused on my skating, for me, age was just a number. I was out there to do my job. Even now, I look back and think, maybe it was good I was so young. And then looking back, I realize it would have been cool to go to another Olympics at an older age and experience it that way. I think I would have been more relaxed cause at 15, I had no experience. I didn’t have life perspective yet. So for me it was skating and nothing else, so my highs were really high and my lows were really low. I didn’t have that type of outlook or perspective to say, you know, “If I miss this jump or if things go wrong here, it’s not the end of the world." To me at the time, everything was just so intensified.
CC: Looking back now, what does the gold medal mean to you or how has your perspective changed?
TL: It means a lot to be an Olympian. I’m obviously so grateful and feel so lucky I was able to achieve my dream of winning an Olympic gold medal. It really is so special to participate in an Olympics. I remember thinking when I won, “Is this real?” It was such a surreal moment that it didn’t feel real or like it happened because you work day in and day out, and you’re thinking about this one goal and then the clock goes from 11:00 to 11:01 and all of a sudden, you have a title of being an Olympic champion. I remember Scott Hamilton had told me, “It almost doesn’t sink in but the greatest part is that it lives with you forever.” And there are moments you’ll wake up and it’s still a pinch me moment, 20 years later. Did that really happen? Did I really do that? So obviously the memories of Japan and of that Olympics mean so much to me and it gave me many opportunities. I love my sport and I’m just lucky that after I stopped professionally skating and transitioned into what that next phase would be, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to sit up with my best friend in the booth and still be part of the sport but just in a slightly different way.
CC: Onto to your current projects, did you expect your career to have gone in the direction it did?
TL: I was hoping for it. I stopped amateur skating competitively when I was 15. At the time, skating was at the height of popularity after 1994 with Tonya [Harding] and Nancy [Kerrigan] so I was really living and skating at a great time. From there I was able to move on professionally and do competitions and compete against my idols like Kristi Yamaguchi. There were so many amazing memories of those years of my life. I toured for six years and then after that, I said, "OK I need a break. Maybe I'll go back to touring, but I feel like there’s something else waiting for me." And that’s a hard transition to be like, what is that next step? One day I woke up and I felt like I knew I wanted to be an analyst and a broadcaster. I remember starting down that road about 10 years ago and my dad saying, “Tara, why do pick things like that, that’s a lot of pressure,” — trying to be an analyst in figure skating when there’s not much room. You only have two people and they usually sit in those seats for a long time. You think of Dick Button, Peggy Flemming, Scott Hamilton, Sandra Bezic. And of course, as I always was as a skater, I was like “No, no, no, I think I can do it.” I worked my way up, Universal Sports, NBC Sports, then I was put on NBC and really just lucky to have met Johnny at the right time. And one day we were siting in the hall cause I was doing commentary for the ladies with Terry Gannon and he was doing the men’s event with Terry Gannon. We were separated and we one day thought, “Wait a minute, we should do it together.” And that was sort of the start of it. Sochi happened, and then the chemistry and the friendship that Johnny and I’ve built over the years has just been incredible. Not only is it a dream job, but I also get to do it with my best friend.
CC: You two have a great dynamic, what do you and Johnny do to prepare for a broadcast?
TL: We love live television, which is how we started at Sochi. Everything we did was live. There was not a lot of rehearsing. It was just about being ourselves. Terry Gannon was amazing; he’s such a seasoned pro and was like, “Be yourselves and go for it.” So all right, we don’t want to get fired and we’ll try to do the best we can here. We have a very similar outlook and opinions about the sport and the way we want to do our commentary: Make sure it’s honest and helps educate but is also fun and enjoyable to watch so we bring more viewers in. We don’t prepare when it’s live television, other than the hours and hours of work beforehand, that’s when all the research happens. We’ll sit and we have these binders and go through every skater and what their story is and what makes them special and what will captivate the audience and get them invested, and what’s behind the skater and how to build up the rivalries and how to educate the audience. I feel that I need to literally have every article to read through so I know every quote and know everything about almost every single skater so that’s the studying. But when we’re on live television, it’s just go. There’s nothing rehearsed.
CC: What’s the pressure knowing figure skating is “the” sport of the winter Olympics?
TL: The pressure is on. We’re in the primetime seat so we’ve got to bring it. We’ve worked through the last four years. Skating is on every Sunday. Everyone tunes in during the Olympics. Since Sochi we’ve had a lot of practice. As a team, it’s going to be even more fun going to this Olympics. This is sort of our promotion into prime time and Sochi was a blast because everything was happening so quickly. Now we’re a real team and been around for the past four years and we’re ready to go there and have some fun.
CC: What should we be on the lookout for at these upcoming Olympic games? Who’s your medal favorite? Who has Team USA's best chance?
TL: Nathan Chen in the men’s event is one to look out for. He’s a favorite for the gold medal. He’s absolutely incredible; he’s revolutionized U.S. men’s skating by adding so many difficult quads to his performances. Now, the rest of the world is trying to keep up with those demands. He was the first to put side quads in his program. He’s attempted six quads in a program. He’s called the Quad King for a reason. He’s going to be a real threat to all his competitors in South Korea so I would definitely watch out for him. I think it’s really exciting because about two years ago I don’t know if many people thought, “Oh Nathan Chen is going to be on the podium in South Korea.” Now it’s not just the podium, he’s going after the gold. And there’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re doing such difficult jumps.
CC: You mentioned Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan earlier, but did you see "I, Tonya?" What do you think of all the hype surrounding it?
TL: I’ve seen the movie and thought it was incredibly acted. Watching the movie, you understand where Tonya has come from and sort of the difficulties and obstacles she had to overcome. I think my biggest takeaway was it’s a movie, and like I said, Allison Janney was incredible. But when you walk away from it as an athlete and as a skater who even lived through that time, that every athlete comes from different walks of life and can have difficult relationships or traumatic experiences. But as an athlete, there is something to be said about sportsmanship and playing fair.
CC: On that, do you think the sport has someone as dominant as a Tara Lipinski or a Nancy Kerrigan?
TL: Like I said in the men’s event, Nathan Chen is the star and that’s the one to watch out for.
CC: In the ladies event, with Ashley Wagner out, what do you think that does for people who aren’t as interested and maybe only knew Wagner?
TL: I still think once they sit down and watch the ladies event, they are going to be in awe of the skating. I think first and second place are going to go to the Russians if they skate well. But the third spot is open in my opinion. To preface it, of course it’s the Olympic games, stakes are high so anything can happen. A couple of mistakes made and all the results could shift.
But for the American women, I do think it’s an outside chance for a medal. You never know if some of the other skaters make mistakes. Someone like Mirai Nagasu— that’s someone the audience can connect to. She was left off the Olympic team four years ago and replaced by Ashley Wagner. Over the last few years, she’s improved so much and she’s been so hungry to get on this Olympic team. She eats, sleeps and breathes getting on the Olympic team, which she did. She upped the technical ante. She’s trying a triple axle, which no one at nationals tried and we probably won't even see anyone at the Olympics try— just a very difficult jump. As an audience member, you can get behind that, you can see this girl who has waited for this moment for so long who went through so many different obstacles, missed an Olympics four years ago and now she’s here, and it’s her chance. If she were to do a few triple axles in both programs and skate the program of her life and someone else falters, anything can happen at an Olympics game. That’s the drama of it.
CC: How has social media changed figure skating, and how do you think you would have handled it if it were around when you were skating?
TL: I feel like there would be pros and cons to it. The great thing is you can connect to your fans, and have this immediate access to people all around the world in seconds and there can be so much support from that. It’s fun. But on the flipside, everyone has their opinions. Skating is a very subjective sport where fans have their favorites. Sometimes, social media can be negative. When you get a comment that’s not nice, that’s not how you want to step out on the ice and try to compete 15 minutes later. I’m sure that a lot of these skaters have learned how to deal with that. They’re not sitting on Twitter moments before going into a competition listening to everyone’s commentary around the world.
CC: Jimmy Ma performed to "Turn Down to What" and this is the first year men and women can skate to lyrics in the Olympics, do you think the future is songs like that or will skaters stick to tradition so as not to upset judges?
TL: We had so much fun with the "Turn Down For What." The audience was engaged. I think his video went viral, which was incredible. I think it’s still new so I don’t know if skaters know exactly what to do with it. They’re probably thinking the judges are more used to classical, traditional music and you really have to pick the right piece when you’re skating to lyrics, even more so in my opinion than a traditional piece to make sure you can sell that program. But it’s been done and you saw with Jimmy Ma, with his personality, it works. So I think over time, skaters are going to feel more and more comfortable and find that groove to make sure if they’re picking a song with lyrics, it really matches their personality and they’re thinking, “How can I make this program stand out and connect to an audience at home?” because it is nice to hear lyrics sometimes.