Four years ago Jack Lipinski's family left him for a gold medal.
His wife, Pat, and his only child, Tara, then 11, went to
Delaware for the summer to take figure skating lessons from a
hot new coach, and they just never quite came back. Since then
Pat and Tara have made what amounts to three trips around the
world, become famous and moved again, this time to suburban
Detroit, but Jack is still by himself, knocking around like a
pinball in the family's 5,000-square-foot house in Sugar Land,
Texas. He shuffles among the only three rooms he uses, dutifully
calling his wife and daughter twice a day, sending out the
checks, being the good dad.
He has law and engineering degrees and is vice president of
refining for a Houston-based oil company, but he still had to
refinance the house to pay for the condo outside Detroit and the
coaches and the ballet teacher and the tutors and the trainers
and the travel and the clothes. Pat and Tara are grateful, but
they don't call him in Houston and ask him what he thinks about
adding a triple toe loop or more sequins, or the competition in
Munich. You ask longtime skating writers about Lipinski's
father, and they say, "Are they together?" or "Whaddya mean,
father?" You open Tara's autobiography and see the dedication to
her mom: "You have...sacrificed so much.... Without [you], I
know I couldn't have gone this far."
No mention of you-know-who.
He knows they love him, and he loves them, and to prove it, 40
Fridays a year he trudges onto a 5:30 p.m. flight from Houston
to Detroit, lands at 9, rents a car and drives to the condo,
where he spends as much of Sunday as he can with Tara, since
it's her only day off from skating. They maybe take in a movie
before he has to head to the airport by 4 p.m. to make the
flight back to Houston, where he flops into bed by 11, ready to
wake up the next day and start funding Operation Tara again.
But he doesn't complain and he doesn't regret and he doesn't
even call it a sacrifice. He figures a certain fireman and
seamstress from Bayonne, N.J., worked like dogs to get him his
two degrees, and now it's his turn. "The hardest part is the
loneliness," he says. "But thank god for phones." The phone bill
is almost $1,000 a month, but sometimes the calls only make him
lonelier. He and Pat had been together 27 years when she and
Tara left. All of a sudden he's supposed to be happy with a cozy
fiber-optic line? "We can't even talk about the loneliness," Pat
says. "It only makes us sadder. He gave up his family for this.
I'm not sure I could've." When Pat gets into this sort of mood,
Tara will sense it and bounce into the kitchen, going, "Mom, how
'bout I make dinner tonight?"
Jack flies in for competitions whenever he can, and he found
himself in Nagano with two wonderful weeks to spend with his
daughter, except that she didn't have two weeks to spend with
him. She was staying in the Olympic Village, its youngest
citizen. You come nearly 7,000 miles to see your little girl
only to find out she had already grown up.
At the Olympics a lot is made about what these tiny dancers give
up--their youth, their innocence, their prom. But does anybody
ever mention what the Jack Lipinskis give up?
After Tara almost knocked down the boards in Nagano last week
with her will and nearly jumped out of the joint with the kind
of single-mindedness family friends see in her father, the
Lipinskis finally had that precious medal, fair and square, and
were on their way to the doping control station to prove it. As
usual Jack tailed along at the end of the entourage--escorts,
officials, coaches, Tara and Pat. All of them were allowed in.
"It's O.K.," he said, "I'm her dad."
"Nai," said the Japanese guard.
"Father," he argued. "Daddy."
"Nai," said the guard.
"Nai, nai, nai!"
He gave up and collapsed on a bench. Alone, as usual, with his
sense of joy and exhaustion and duty, he must've thought how
many more years of cold sheets and burned salads he had to go.
He glanced at his watch. It was well after midnight, which meant
it was his 47th birthday.
You wonder if he made a wish.
"Whaddya mean, father?"