Guaranteed To Keep The Chin Up

The next AlbrightFlemingHamill may be Tiffany Chin, who at 17 is skating out of the wings toward the U.S. women's title
February 04, 1985

What comfort; how downright nifty it is to know that America's Next Sweetheart is waiting in the wings, ready to make her move. Lord knows, the life of sports sweethearts seems all too short: They wheel across the landscape of our fancy for brief, glittering moments and then they go off to where we see them in an altered perspective. They go off to the pros, to endless television specials, to commercials, to the side panels of Wheaties boxes and the labels of soup cans. Some of them, alas, go to fat and we all sigh in sympathy.

But here she is now, Miss U.S. Figure Skating for 1985 and beyond, polished and trained to a fare-thee-well. What's more, she's just the proper size and shape for the role, and by chance and not design, even her name—Tiffany—is right, catching the light to remind us of gems. Last name: Chin. She's Chinese-American, 17 years old and a wandlike 99 pounds, at 5'1". Her skating style is quicksilver, a blend of illusion and power. Given these factors, skating fans sometimes get giddy and call her a china doll—then pause in embarrassment at the racial labeling.

"I'm used to that," Tiffany says, with the faintest hint of a shrug. "It's been this way, all that china doll stuff, since I was super small. You learn to just accept it and find strength in your own culture. I'm surprised at how many people try to deny what they really are."

Tiffany knows what she is, all right: She's the heiress to the national figure skating stage, now that her teammates from the 1984 Olympics, Scotty Hamilton, Rosalynn Sumners, Elaine Zayak and Peter and Kitty Carruthers have all double-Lutzed off into ice-show careers. Just a year ago the U.S. was a fearsome international skating power, with three women, two men, two pairs and two dance teams ranked in the world's top six. Now it's pretty much down to—or up to—Tiffany to carry on.

The irony is that Tiffany would have crushed the other U.S. women anyway, had they been unwise enough to stick around for this season, because she has been coming on like a small, sequined steamroller. She was 13 when she won the 1981 junior world championship at Ontario, one of the youngest U.S. girls to take that title. In the 1982 U.S. championships she placed fifth; it was her first time out among senior women. By 1983, she had moved up to third in the U.S. and ninth in the world—and at the '84 nationals last January in Salt Lake City she won the silver medal behind Sumners and ahead of Zayak. Fourth after the compulsory figures, Tiffany won both the two-minute short program and the finals to become, no matter what color her medal, the best female freestyle skater in the land. At Sarajevo she was the youngest member of the U.S. Winter Olympic team.

"And the nice thing about Sarajevo," she says, "was that most of the pressure was on Sumners." As most everybody recalls, Sumners buckled, finishing second to East Germany's Katarina Witt, 18, with the Soviet Union's Kira Ivanova winning the bronze. Amid all the hoo-ha at the time, perhaps not too many folks noticed that Tiffany had scrambled from a dismal 12th in school figures to place second in the short program and finally finish fourth overall. Zayak landed way back in sixth.

"What's really strange now," says Tiffany, "is to be the only one left. I mean, suddenly I'm not the underdog. Which really leaves me with only one little problem." And she grins, flashing perfect teeth now that her braces have been taken off. "Just being good is not good enough anymore."

It all started with the great garage sale steal: two pairs of tiny ice skates for $1 each. Everybody knows you can't pass up a deal like that, so Marjorie Chin brought them home. It's that sort of thing, the offhand, innocent gesture, that gets legends going.

"Very first thing I did," says Tiffany, "was to step out onto the ice and go splat! Well, what we didn't know was that they were actually toy skates, not real, with thin aluminum blades that bent."

This was in San Diego in 1975. Tiffany was eight, her sister Tammy was six, and Mom was pregnant with Michael, who is now nine. The outcome was that Tiffany decided on the spot, which was roughly the seat of her pants, that she wanted to go on skating. Tammy wasn't so sure; indeed, after a few more sessions she was positive. So the family bought real skates for Tiffany ($7.50 at Sears), and a baby grand piano and lessons for Tammy.

That's the way things work at the Chins, a close family centered around the kids and their accomplishments. Quietest of them all is father Ed, a native of Oakland and a Ph.D. who works on satellite projects for TRW. Marjorie emigrated from her native Taiwan in 1961 to get a master's degree in library science from USC. And now they all live in the swanky L.A. suburb of Toluca Lake, just a few blocks away from Bob Hope. "We're all happy the way we are," Marjorie says. "It's not our style to force a killer instinct on Tiffany. As far as families go, we'll be the first to say that skating is not the end of the world."

Uh-huh. Well, the world had better not get in Marjorie's way. Never in the long history of sports mothers has there been anyone more fiercely loyal and protective. She'll shake Ed awake in the middle of the night and say, "Listen, I've been thinking about that tendon in her foot." And Ed will murmur sleepily, "Uhh...what foot?"

Marjorie paces the sidelines while Tiffany trains, then explains earnestly, "I want us to be in the position where we've prepared her for competition as well as anybody ever could. I mean, I can't ask her not to be afraid out there, but...."

That Marjorie Chin is known around the rinks as the Dragon Lady isn't so much an ethnic stereotype as a salute to her single-mindedness. There is no rumored exotic cure or magic therapy that Marjorie doesn't investigate. She worries about the tendons in Tiffany's ankles when there's really no apparent problem—the girl is just plain flat-footed, that's all, no crisis. Marjorie also envisions tiny fat pads forming on the in-sides of Tiffany's knees because of her unaligned ankles ("You mean you can't see it?"), when Tiffany probably has the most beautiful legs in figure skating.

Tiffany has it figured. "Mom does the outbursts and Dad provides the calmness," she says. "And so all I have to do is skate."

Coach John A.W. Nicks stands in the center of the rink in parka and heavy boots, turning slowly to watch as Tiffany swings through her routine. The strains of La Bohème ebb and flow, now bubbly, now booming. There's a kind of sporting magic going on here: High, swirling leaps come off cleanly, with no hint of the muscle it takes to launch them. Then: "Stop!" Nicks says.

Tiffany glides over. She listens solemnly, her dark eyes unblinking.

"Not quite right," says Nicks. "Now, then. What would be the only thing that could prevent your landing the double axel on the boom part?"

"Stamina," she says.

"You've got it. And just before that, in the bubbly section, you're supposed to match the mood of the music. I want a little frivolous touch. Do you know what frivolous means?"

"I'm not sure," she says.

"Then look it up. All right: Once more. Remember stamina. And at the same time, frivolous."

She starts over again and Nicks turns to a friend. "A tough combination, that," he says. "But watch her. She is now, at last, the complete skater. At this moment there's not another girl in the country with this purity of line, plus such incredible strength. It's odd, but most women figure skaters aren't really very good athletes if you were to compare them to, say, an average miler. They start strongly, but they tend to run down at the end of their four-minute number. That's just when a seemingly fragile girl must have strength and somehow manage not to let it show."

The scene is the Ice Capades Chalet in Costa Mesa, 70 miles from Tiffany's home; she commutes there three days a week for four-hour sessions, sleeping, eating or studying in the family Mercedes while Marjorie drives. The other four days she trains at a rink in North Hollywood. It's a harsh schedule, but the family feels it has found the perfect coach in Nicks. Indeed, he's the calming balance between Marjorie and Tiffany, a crisp Englishman who has produced a number of champs, among them Ken Shelley and Jo Jo Starbuck and those other sweethearts of the ice, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. Nicks currently works with 15 nationally ranked skaters and 25 or so comers—but Tiffany is clearly the star of the show, now the top U.S. senior woman and No. 3 in the world.

And it shows in her high-soaring triple jumps—three in fast succession at the start of her four-minute program, recalling the bounce of Zayak at her best-plus the more velvety moves of an earlier time, when artistry outranked athleticism. An International Skating Union ruling of a year ago seems made to order for a skater like Tiffany. One might call it the Zayak Law.

"The ISU has strongly insisted that it now wants well-rounded skating from its women," Nicks says. "No more bounding all over the place. It ruled that one can do as many triple jumps as one wants—it's just that none of them can be repeated except in combinations." Because there are only six different triple jumps, the ruling will serve to bring the sport back down to earth—or ice—and restore the grace it seemed to lack. "It'll never revert all the way back to the Peggy Fleming era," says Nicks, "but the ruling obviously fits Tiffany perfectly."

The hot tip this year is that among senior women the new emphasis will be on speed, speed, speed. This element was unveiled at the Skate Canada meet in Victoria, B.C. last October, the first of this season's major international events. Tiffany, who was clearly expected to win. was caught looking, as they say in baseball. She finished second to one Midori Ito of Japan. 15. who skates in a style that might be called Very Busy. Soviet champ Ivanova didn't attend, but her teammate, Natalia Lebedeva, won the bronze.

Tiffany came home and added a local speed skater to her stable of advisers, and now, she says, "I've got that part under control."

All of which will add spice to the year ahead. It follows that while Chin has no U.S. equal, her No. 1 world rival will still be Witt, who didn't skate at Victoria but won her fifth consecutive East German title a few weeks ago. And while Witt has great moves, fast she ain't. Ito remains the mystery guest; she was eighth behind Tiffany the year Chin won the world juniors, and has been up and down since then. She blew Japan's Olympic trials and didn't make the team, but competed in the 1984 world meet a few weeks after Sarajevo, and came in seventh. Tiffany missed that meet because of a stress fracture in her left foot; Witt won it. with the Soviet Union's Anna Kondrashova second and Zayak third.

All the top skaters should be on hand for the 1985 world championships in Tokyo March 4-9. The home crowd will assuredly be pro-Ito, and Witt and Chin and the Soviets will have their work cut out for them. Nobody in the U.S. is brash enough to predict that Tiffany will win the championship this year, but she's a cinch to medal, just as she's odds-on to win this week's U.S. title in Kansas City. Anybody who thinks she won't win that one just doesn't understand U.S. skating's system of orderly progression through the ranks. And ever since those $1 skates. Tiffany has been doing nothing if not progressing.

The idea. Tiffany says, is to be strong but soft. This sounds a bit like an ancient Chinese proverb applied to figure skating, and Tiffany nods, pointing out that "our culture goes back to. oh. 2.000 years before Christ." Still it makes sense on the patio at her Toluca Lake home, as one sips hearty tea. The family dog lolls nearby, a small, furry mop with an unpronounceable Chinese name that translates as Little White Cabbage.

"This is a much more aggressive sport than it appears to be." Tiffany says. "But it comes in different ways. Some skaters are already full of aggression; I have to put it on like a costume. I block out the world until I don't care what Mom or Mr. Nicks or anybody says—and then I go out and skate my best."

You've noticed: Chin doesn't talk like the typical 17-year-old. Helpless giggles a la Retton are not her style; and the china doll is more porcelain than cuddly. Nicks says, "She looks like a nice little girl, and the audiences sense that quality in her. It's one of the things that's making her a winner."

Who knows, maybe it's because all the Chins are achievers who never seem to rest. Certainly Mom and Dad are. Tiffany takes three academic classes per semester as an honors student—she's a junior—at Burbank's Providence High and attends summer school, thus studying the year round. She also spends time promoting teen membership at the local YWCA and serves as a youth ambassador for the March of Dimes, and she has made an antidrug spot for television. Tammy's also on the honors list at Providence High and the sophomore class president—and little Mike recently won the gold medal in his elementary school pentathlon. Marjorie tugs and pulls and worries over them all.

As for that wonderfully appropriate name: "Well," says Ed. "we had always loved the name Tiffany. But when she was born, we were a little timid about it. that it might not be right. So we named her Audrey Tiffany Chin. And then nobody ever called her Audrey again."

Marjorie recently turned down a role for Tiffany in the film Flying, which hopes to capitalize on the current gymnastics craze. "We want to remain wholesome," she says. "That could make her soft. The movie people tend to come too close to you."

Well, nobody's within miles of Tiffany at the moment. She has her goals lined up. She'll skate through to the 1988 Winter Games, fully expecting to win the world championship along the way, then perhaps turn pro.

"There's a point where none of this is any fun at all," she says. Then, suddenly, she grins. "But there are other points, certain big moments when everything's just right—and I say to myself, 'How in the world can anyone not want to do this?' "

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONCRAIG MOLENHOUSE PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEThe "china doll" label doesn't bother Tiffany, who finds strength in her background. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSENicks, the coach of Tai and Randy, gives his new star a few pointers. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEEven at 10, little Tiffany stood head-and-shoulders above her skating competition. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSETiffany shares Chinese food with her grandparents and mother, all natives of Taiwan. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEL.A.'s "Chinese Weekly Post" made Tiffany a cover girl at 15.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)