Of course she slept with her gold medal. It was something Tara
Lipinski had always promised herself she'd do, the final dream
in her dream-come-true Olympics. She crawled into bed at 4 a.m.
at the athletes' village with it hanging around her neck and
dropped into a deep slumber while one of her coaches, Megan
Faulkner, stayed bedside for an hour curling Lipinski's hair. In
just a few hours the postvictory interview whirlwind would
begin, and Lipinski would have to be properly coiffed. "Roll
over, Tara," whispered Faulkner, who'd coached the 15-year-old
since she was nine. "I have to do the other side."
Complying, the youngest Winter Olympic individual gold medalist
ever--a title formerly held by Sonja Henie--murmured that all
she wanted to do was go back to sleep.
And of course when she awoke four hours later, Lipinski's first
conscious act was to reach down and "pinch" the medal, which was
heavier than she'd imagined, a rising sun depicted on one side,
the mountains of Nagano on the other. "Just to be sure it wasn't
a dream," she later said, "and that it's still going on. These
are the best days of my life."
Days so preposterously happy that Lipinski is certain they could
have occurred only with the blessing of Saint Therese of
Lisieux, the saint pictured on the locket she wears around her
neck. "Thank you, Saint Therese," Lipinski said in the kiss and
cry area, eyes shining, after skating her short program perfectly.
It wasn't just thanks for her flawless performance. Everything
about the previous three weeks had been blissful, a joyous
odyssey that began the day she left for Nagano with her parents,
Jack and Pat. Sociable and fun-loving, Lipinski, an only child
who's been to Disney World 14 times, immersed herself in the
Olympic experience. (It is her nature. She once spent an entire
day riding Splash Mountain.) From the beginning she took pains
to commit to memory all the little details that would stay with
her the rest of her life. Arriving by bus with her teammates at
the athletes' village. Seeing her room for the first time.
Unpacking. Taking her first tour of the pasta bar in the
cafeteria. She remembers the first time she walked into the
White Ring, Nagano's figure skating venue--"It was gorgeous,"
she says. She savors the memory of marching in the opening
ceremonies, posing cheerfully with the 516-pound sumo wrestler
Akebono. Of being congratulated by Wayne Gretzky and getting his
autograph. Of breakfasting with the U.S. women's hockey team.
"If I don't get an Olympic medal, what am I left with?" she
asked a friend. "I want my Olympic memories. This is my chance
to have fun."
Her coach, Richard Callaghan, was all for it. "I knew she was
organized enough to go to bed on time, get up on time and not
miss the bus to practice," he said. "Tara has her day structured
so she's a giddy teenager between these hours and a really hard
worker between these hours."
The pressure, throughout her stay, was off. Despite the fact
that Lipinski is the current world champion and that 15 of the
18 women who'd held that title in an Olympic year had won the
gold, she was a clear underdog to her 17-year-old teammate,
Michelle Kwan. Both times they'd faced each other this season,
Kwan had easily bested Lipinski, most recently at the U.S.
nationals in January, when Lipinski fell and Kwan was awarded 15
perfect marks. The judges loved Kwan's artistry, and while
Lipinski's programs were more difficult technically, few experts
believed she could win unless Kwan took a tumble or two. "My
biggest challenge was getting everyone to believe I had a
chance," Lipinski said.
Kwan's biggest challenge was surviving the pressure of being the
gold medal favorite, a weight she's carried since winning her
first world championship in 1996. Kwan didn't arrive in Nagano
until three days after the opening ceremonies, choosing to stay
in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where she trains, so she could
continue treatments for the stress fracture of the second toe of
her left foot, which she suffered in November. Instead of
rooming with her teammates at the village, Kwan stayed in a
hotel with her parents, Danny and Estella. She practiced, ate,
slept, did a little sightseeing and watched a lot of movies in
her hotel room: Titanic, Seven Years in Tibet, Air Force One.
She could have been almost anywhere.
While Lipinski chatted with the media every day, even stopping
off at the press center to answer her E-mail, Kwan remained
largely secluded, granting only one interview that wasn't
mandatory and attending no Olympic events. It was clear she was
in Nagano for one reason: To win the gold medal. "I told her,
you came here with a job to do, for yourself and for your
country," Danny Kwan said the day after his daughter won the
short program. "You didn't come for fun. If you concentrate on
social life, you're setting yourself up for a problem. You don't
want to embarrass yourself in front of your country."
It wasn't the first time Michelle had heard those words, Danny
acknowledged. Every time she put on a uniform with USA on the
front, she could expect a similar lecture. It's a lot to put on
a young lady--which may be why Kwan often seems to be 17 going
on 40--but she's been able to handle the pressure. Yet pressure
is the enemy of art, Kwan's trump card. In subtle but telling
ways, the pressure showed up in her skating.
Lipinski, on the other hand, was blooming like a flower. The
youngest athlete in the village, she easily made friends. Her
roommate was another 15-year-old, ice dancer Jessica Joseph. She
also spent time with Julia Lautowa, 16, a singles skater from
Austria, who'd stayed with the Lipinskis during Skate America
last October. The food was good, the rooms were comfortable and
quiet. She had no idea what floor the U.S. hockey players were on.
Relaxed and cheerful, Lipinski was practicing beautifully,
regularly landing her jumps. Afterward she'd go into the CBS
production trailer to study the tape of her skating. In 1994
Oksana Baiul had been injured in a collision during an Olympic
practice, and as a precaution against missing a similar mishap,
CBS was videotaping the practices of the top women every day.
Lipinski was the only one who asked to watch the tapes. The
postproduction director even taught her how to use the videotape
machine. "I was looking at my presentation," Lipinski says, "and
seeing myself on tape gave me confidence. Sometimes you think
it's worse than it actually is."
All season Lipinski's main focus has been on improving her
artistry. In Detroit, where she trains, she takes daily
instruction from Russian ballet teacher Marina Sheffer, then
practices positions for hours in front of a mirror. While
studying the tapes, she was looking for little things on which
to improve. Both Lipinski's programs were choreographed by
Sandra Bezic, who hadn't seen her skate them in person since
last August, and Bezic was in Nagano doing commentary for the
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After sitting through a
couple of practices, she began E-mailing Lipinski with small
suggestions. Bezic thought she might speed up her circular
footwork near the conclusion of her short program, that she
should spread her arms at the start of her spiral sequence. She
suggested Lipinski alter the final position of her arms in the
long program, so that one was upraised instead of lying folded
across her chest.
Lipinski tried the ideas in practice, then studied how they
looked on tape. Cumulatively, they made a difference.
Imperceptibly, the artistic gap between her and Kwan was
narrowing. During Wednesday's short program, skating to a song
from the movie Anastasia, Lipinski was luminous--fast and light
and joyful. "It didn't seem like me," she said after viewing the
tape. "I could actually see myself as Anastasia. Emotionally, it
was my best program ever."
Kwan, though, won the day easily, eight judges to one--Lipinski
was second--but Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, still looking for
his first gold medalist of his long, distinguished career,
admitted it was not her best performance. "She was a little
conservative," he said. "At nationals, she had more energy, more
strength, more freedom."
She also had a more difficult technical program. Carroll and
Kwan had decided to remove the triple flip from her short
program for Nagano and replace it with the simpler triple toe
loop. It was a safe play, but it drew attention to the technical
gap between Kwan and her younger rival. In Friday night's long
program, Kwan, skating first among the final six women, was
careful, sure, and technically without error. She was also a
little slow but landed all seven of her triple jumps cleanly,
with only one minor wobble. "She was going for accuracy and
consistency," Carroll said later. "Her performance was very held
in. It was not the feeling of flying."
Still, a solid row of 5.9s for the presentation mark seemed to
assure Kwan of the gold medal. That performance certainly would
have been enough to win at any other Olympics. But the judges,
who had properly saddled Kwan with five 5.7s for technical
merit, had left a sliver of room, which was all Lipinski needed.
This was not a gold medal Kwan lost so much as it was ripped
away from her. Lipinski perfectly articulated her Olympic
experience with her skates. She had a blast. She soared and spun
with abandon, filling the White Ring with her joy. Like Kwan,
she landed seven triples, but the difference was her trademark
triple loop-triple loop combination and a wonderful closing
triple toe-half loop-triple Salchow sequence. She finished her
program with an illusion spin. Then she broke into a
spontaneous, exultant sprint across the ice with arms raised
that someone later remarked bore a warming resemblance to a girl
running into her father's long-absent embrace.
Stepping off the ice, Lipinski, who only a year ago was referred
to in print as a jumping robot, broke into uncontrollable sobs
of relief. And then, as she recomposed herself, came her best
Olympic memory of all: the moment her marks were flashed onto
the board, and she saw the six (of nine) first-place marks.
Three, four, five times Lipinski shrieked in unfettered
disbelief, a piercing high-pitched cry that friends sitting 30
rows up could hear. The next day, while watching the tape of
that moment in the CBS trailer, her mother referred to it as a
"Publishers Clearing House scream." Tara, hair nicely curled,
mouth agape, listened in embarrassment as her parents, her agent
and various CBS technicians laughed at each succeeding squeal.
The joy in that moment was infectious, and no one in that
trailer wanted it to end.
Which is pretty much the way Lipinski felt about these Olympics.
"I'm so happy but also a little sad that the Olympics are
slipping away," she said in a moment of peace late in the day.
The last reserves of adrenaline were flagging, and when she
tried to cut her spaghetti, the knife flew out of her hand in a
perfect double Axel, splattering her jacket with tomato sauce.
"I'm so tired," she said, sighing. "I hate leaving. I'll miss
the village and the cafeteria as much as the skating. I'll miss
it, but I don't think I could do this again."
Sure, she could. But she won't have to if she doesn't want to.
Like memories, gold lasts a lifetime. Even if you're only 15.
the White Ring with her joy.