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Lipinski Comes of Age, but It's Kwan's Time
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page C8


NAGANO — Tara Lipinski grabbed her tiny head with both hands after the music stopped at White Ring at the completion of her short program. It was not a gesture of relief from a 15-year-old skating under the greatest of pressure at her first Olympics. It was a gesture of joy. She was thrilled, she was overwhelmed, she was excited.

She wanted to skate her way through the rest of the night.

"I wished I could just keep going and enjoy the moment," Lipinski said, still almost breathless after coming off the ice. "I wished it was the long program or something."

These Winter Games belong to Michelle Kwan, the ethereal 17-year-old American, and rightly so. Kwan is a brilliant skater, one of the most beautiful in this sport's history, and her artistry is absolutely breathtaking. Her short program Wednesday night was not as impressively performed as it was at the U.S. nationals last month (and how dare anyone ask Kwan to improve — or even repeat — near perfection?), but she skated well enough to capture first place. Lipinski finished second. And, save for a disastrous performance by 20-year-old Nicole Bobek, it was a marvelous night for U.S. skating.

In all likelihood, Friday will bring more of the same. Kwan skates first in the final group with her long program, and if she skates cleanly, the gold medal race will be over before Lipinski even sets foot on the ice. That sounds terrible, especially since Lipinski has a more technically difficult long program. But it's a reality. Kwan is the most beautiful skater in the world, and she holds the keys to the Olympic throne.

What shouldn't be overlooked, though, is how tremendously impressive Lipinski already has been — no matter what happens Friday night. Maybe Kwan will falter and Lipinski will have a chance to sneak in and grab the gold. Maybe she won't. Here's betting, though, that no matter what happens in Kwan's program, Lipinski will embrace her long program just as she has embraced this entire Olympic experience: whole-heartedly.

The short program is like an obstacle course for skaters — all they want is to finish it cleanly, without a fall, or a wobble, or a two-footed landing on any of the three required jumps. Medals can't be won in the short program, but they certainly can be lost. Ask Bobek. The judges were just waiting for her skate herself into third place, and she lost that opportunity the minute she fell on her first jump.

Lipinski, on the other hand, did more than skate cleanly. She skated confidently, and with exuberance. "Emotionally," she said later, "it's the best I've ever skated the program."

With her heavy makeup and her technical wizardry, Lipinski tries to fool people into forgetting that she is a mere 15 and would become the youngest Olympic champion ever should she be able to eclipse Kwan. But no matter how many big-time performances Lipinski has given, no matter how much she has learned from participating in world championships and nationals, what 15-year-old wouldn't be overwhelmed by the Olympics?

If she felt it, however, Lipinski did not let it show. Certainly, there were moments of nervousness throughout the day, but there were more moments when she felt total confidence. She practiced early, took a nap, sent some e-mail to friends. She wandered around the athletes' village, greeting those she knows. At times, she wished she could step on the ice — right then — and perform her program.

"There were moments," she said, "when I just thought, 'I can do it.' "

Those who watched Lipinski at the nationals in Philadelphia remember a young girl who was tense and nervous and clearly unnerved after she fell in the short program. She had been crowned world champion at 14, but all of a sudden, she wasn't supposed to be the best in the world. Kwan was. It was disturbing to Lipinski. But how did she handle it? She recovered to skate a terrific long program and snare second place.

And since she arrived here, Lipinski has been behaving like a 15-year-old on the greatest vacation of her life. She acknowledges that the pressure really isn't on her here, and that is something of a blessing. She claims to like being the underdog, the second-place skater. She hopes to move up on Friday night, to take her difficult program and transform it into something the judges simply can't ignore. You get the feeling, though, that if she is on the medal stand wearing the silver, she won't be there in tears.

After all, what did she do after she finished skating on Wednesday? She climbed into the stands and sat with her U.S. teammates — including pal Todd Eldredge — to watch the rest of the field skate. She didn't look tense or anxious when Kwan skated. She looked like she was having a good time.

"I think I'm just so happy with the way I skated, it was so enjoyable — I'll always remember it," Lipinski said. "Being with my teammates, having fun with rest of the group it was just a great time to be happy and be with everyone else."

Some of my more cynical colleagues have dismissed Lipinski's huge grin and shout of exhalation as a choreographed move, designed for the benefit of the judges and the crowd. And I'm not fool enough to think that Lipinski does not know to play to the cameras, 15 or not. But under these circumstances — circumstances that unnerved 26-year-old Eldredge, 20-year-old Bobek and a whole host more skaters — Lipinski went out and got the job done.

So give the 15-year-old credit. She may be Kwan's understudy at these Olympics, but she couldn't be doing a better job.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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