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Lipinski's Gold Is Hometown's Pride
By Michael A. Lutz
Associated Press
Friday, February 20, 1998; 7:39 p.m. EST




SUGAR LAND, Texas — This Houston suburb used to be best known for its 150-year-old sugar mill. Now, the City Hall switchboard operator answers: ``City of Sugar Land, home of Tara Lipinski.''

And for a good reason — Lipinski won the gold medal in figure skating Friday at the Nagano Games, and this city's 60,000 residents couldn't be happier.

``It's fantastic, makes you proud to be a Sugar Lander,'' said Rawley Outlaw, who was buying gas across the street from the sugar mill, the oldest industry in Texas still on its original site. ``She really put us on the map.''

Because of the time difference in Japan, Sugar Landers got the news as they awoke: The 15-year-old Lipinski had defeated teammate Michelle Kwan to become the youngest figure skating champion in Olympics history.

The excitement reached all the way to Lipinski's skating club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where a sign greeted visitors: ``Tara Lipinski. Ladies Olympic Champion.'' More signs are on the way, especially in Sugar Land.

``I can't wait to put billboards all over town,'' Sugar Land Mayor Dean Hrbacek said. ``There's no keeping this quiet. Everyone's going to know.''

At Highlands Elementary, where Lipinski attended third and fourth grades, students tied gold ribbons around the school sign and during lunch break chanted, ``Tara, Tara, Tara.''

``I've been skating since I was 9 and I think she's been an inspiration to a lot of children in Sugar Land,'' said Ashley Harris, 15, after a workout at the Aerodrome, the city's two-sheet arena. ``There are so many kids now who want to be like Tara.''

Eight-year-old Jordan Bayne, dressed for skating class, is one of them.

She's setting her goals high because of Lipinski, who is also the defending world champion. Asked if she wanted to skate in the Olympics, Jordan replied: ``Yes, 2006. I'll be 16 then.''

She has watched many of Lipinski's performances.

``I like her jumps the best,'' she said. ``The triple-lutz is my favorite.''

In a city where football and rodeos are more popular than figure skating, it was still tough to find anyone who didn't know about Lipinski's victory.

``My wife made me watch it,'' Howard Griffith said over lunch. ``My wife's mother's maiden name is Lipinski, so she cheers for her. Actually, I really have enjoyed watching the Olympics.''

Lipinski and Kwan gave the United States its first one-two finish in women's figure skating since 1956. Lipinski is two months younger than Sonja Henie was in 1928 when the Norwegian became the Olympic figure skating champion.

Lipinski's golden performance is expected to inspire many other young girls to take skating lessons at the Aerodrome. Her past victories had the same effect.

``Since the rink opened, we've had 500 to 600 kids skating and now we've doubled that,'' said Shanyn Presley Vallon, the Aerodrome's sales marketing director. ``We expect that to skyrocket now that Tara has won.''

Anticipating Lipinski's success, Hrbacek had already planned an Olympics community watch Friday night at a mall to show Lipinski's performance on big-screen televisions.

``The food's not free but the fun is,'' the mayor said.

A tornado struck the mall Monday, ripping a wall off a store.

``It's been quite a week for us,'' said Robbin Mallett, the city's public relations coordinator. ``We've had tornadoes, rain and hail. Now we've got Tara.''

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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