The littlest came last: a girl so young--14--that only last week
she'd lost her final baby molar; a girl as tiny, at 4'8" and 75
pounds, as the tooth fairy. But the elfin Tara Lipinski had been
cunningly groomed for this moment. So when she took the ice last
Saturday night at sold-out Nashville Arena, a buzz of
anticipation swept through the crowd for the first time all
week. Here, at last, was the drama we've come to expect of the
U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Could she win the ladies'
crown? Would the judges let her?
Until then the question on everyone's lips had been, Where's the
passion? And where, oh where, were the tears? A figure skating
championship without tears is like a country music tune without
Mama, heartache or a pickup truck. It don't sell. Reigning world
champion Todd Eldredge won his fourth men's title and seemed as
excited as a man who had just passed through the checkout line
at Kroger. "I skated O.K.," Eldredge said, by way of a review of
his performance. At these championships, O.K. was good enough to
Thus it was left to the women's competition to put a bloom on
the week and to remind everyone that in this most precarious of
sports--in which entire futures are balanced on a sliver of
metal digging into a shaving of ice--there is simply no such
thing as a sure bet. Though if ever there was, Michelle Kwan was
The 16-year-old Kwan, who is from Torrance, Calif., had been on
a self-described roll. Poised beyond her years, confident in her
prodigious talent, she had won nine competitions in a row over
the past 11 months (including the 1996 world championships) and
14 of 15 since the fall of '95. She had whipped the best of the
professional skaters--'92 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi--in
something called the Ultimate Four competition and appeared to
be a shoo-in, not just to win these nationals and next month's
worlds in Lausanne, but to win the '98 Olympics as well. "I want
to be a legend, like Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming," Kwan had
candidly said to Jere Longman of The New York Times in one of a
series of interviews she did before the nationals. At 16 she was
a champ with her eye on the ages.
February 24, 1997
But in a good way, a respectful way. There didn't appear to be
any skater in the U.S. or elsewhere who could match her seamless
combination of athleticism and artistry, so Kwan had raised her
sights toward history. How did Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt
do it? she wondered last week after easily winning the short
program. How were they able to successfully defend title after
title? (Boitano won four national titles and two world
championships; Witt won two Olympic gold medals.) How did they
maintain their focus?
You just have to concentrate on one event at a time, Boitano
told her. Don't get ahead of yourself. The advice of her coach,
Frank Carroll, was equally sound. "You have to skate like you're
taking the castle, not defending it," he said.
It was with those words in her head that Kwan took the ice as
the next-to-last skater Saturday night--confident, poised and
aggressive. While getting off to a solid start she landed her
second-most-difficult element: the triple Lutz-double toe loop
combination. Then she swung right into a planned triple
toe-triple toe. She landed the first triple but doubled the
second and fell. Hard. She doesn't fall often, especially not in
competition, and she became discombobulated. "I was standing up,
then I was on the ice, and it was like, What happened?" Kwan
said afterward. "I panicked."
A hush of disbelief fell over the audience, and then came a
groan as Kwan stumbled badly on her subsequent jump, a triple
flip. Next was a triple loop, and Kwan fell again. The fans had
seen enough. She needed help, and they clapped and cheered for
the defending champion to pull herself together. It worked, too.
Kwan fed off the energy and later thanked the crowd for the
support. She finished strongly, but the damage had been done:
She had landed only four of her seven triples cleanly. The
castle gate was wide open.
Lipinski didn't have to be asked through twice--although the
invitation came a few years before anyone expected it to.
(Richard Callaghan, Lipinski's coach, had said they were
building toward the 2002 Olympics.)
Lipinski, an only child, grew up near Newark, Del., and started
skating at age six at the University of Delaware Ice Arena. At
nine she moved with her parents, Pat and Jack, to Sugar Land,
Texas, near Houston, where she trained for two years before it
was clear to her mother that Tara's talent had surpassed the
level of instruction she could get in the Lone Star State--not
exactly a hotbed of figure skating. Mother and daughter moved
back to the Delaware Figure Skating Club for two more years
while Jack stayed in Houston as vice president of Coastal Corp.
so he could pay the bills. At 12 Tara became the youngest gold
medalist ever at the Olympic Festival. When Tara was 13 the
Lipinskis raised eyebrows as she and Pat went on a whirlwind
coaching tour, interviewing and taking sample lessons from the
likes of Carlo Fassi and Kathy Casey before settling on
Callaghan, who coaches at the Detroit Skating Club. This time
the prodigy was discovering the mentor.
Nothing about the rise to stardom of Lipinski, who has reached
the ninth-grade level under private tutors, has been accidental.
She had an agent, a public relations firm and at least one
endorsement contract before she had won anything more
substantial than the South Atlantic Senior championship. Her
potential was all too apparent; the only question was whether a
growth spurt would--or still will--detract from her ability to
land her startling array of jumps. At her first U.S. nationals
appearance in the senior division last year, Lipinski finished
third, and she followed that up with an impressive 15th-place
showing at her first worlds, where she landed seven triple jumps
in a sparkling long program that pulled her up from 23rd place.
Since then Callaghan has taken a page from the book according to
Kwan: He has tried to make his skater appear more mature. Both
Lipinski and Kwan have long hair tightly coiffed in buns. Both
wear makeup--lipstick, mascara, the works. When Jo-Ann Barnas of
the Detroit Free Press wrote that little Tara had lost her final
baby tooth last week, Callaghan fumed, fearing such a revelation
would reinforce Lipinski's childlike image in the judges' minds.
Other changes for Lipinski were more substantive. She began
working three days a week with a ballet instructor, which has
reined in her coltishness and helped her move with more grace.
Renowned choreographer Sandra Bezic was hired to create programs
for Lipinski that expressed delight yet looked adult. Both her
short program, skated to a portion of the sound track from the
movie Little Women, and her long program, skated to excerpts of
the sound tracks from Sense and Sensibility and Much Ado About
Nothing, struck the right chord between innocence and
stylishness. "I want her to look like she's 14, but a
sophisticated 14," Callaghan said.
However the handlers wrapped the package, Lipinski was still a
kid. For her to beat Kwan--even on Kwan's worst day--she was
going to have to skate the judges into a corner by landing every
jump in her difficult program. Callaghan knew it, Lipinski knew
it, and the crowd knew it as she took the ice after Kwan's
Lipinski opened with a line drive of a double Axel that never
got more than six inches off the ice. She is not a great leaper,
but she spins so fast that she seems to dematerialize, like
Tinkerbell, in the midst of her jumps. She followed with a much
more solid triple flip, and just like that the crowd, which
moments before had been Kwan's, was hers. Clean, fast, polished,
Lipinski filled the ice with delicate spins and spirals. Midway
through the program, when Lipinski landed what is believed to be
the first triple loop-triple loop combination ever done in
competition, by man or woman, the audience let out a roar that
didn't stop until after the flying camel she unveiled at the
end. It was obvious to everyone in the building--everyone except
Elaine DeMore of Cleveland, one of the nine judges--that
Lipinski had won, becoming the youngest U.S. ladies' figure
skating champion, replacing Sonya Klopfer, who was 15 when she
triumphed in 1951. "I'm in shock," said Lipinski, her eyes
filling half her face. "I'm on a different wavelength. Something
Don't think for a moment that this win signifies a passing of
the torch. Kwan will be back and may, someday, become the legend
she dreams of being. Lipinski now carries the burden of lofty
expectations--her own and those of others--on her waiflike
frame. She'll find the jumping tougher with that added weight.
Neither she nor Kwan is yet in her prime, and in the next few
months and years the two will push and pique and poke each other
This rivalry is just beginning to grow its teeth.