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 Jennifer Frey: Spirit at the heart of Tara Lipinski's triumph.
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 Michelle Kwan finished first in the short program.
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 Figure skating section


In Ode to Joy, Young Lipinski Grabs the Gold
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21, 1998; Page A1

 tara lipinski
 After striking the finishing pose in her program, Tara Lipinski, the youngest women to ever win gold in Olympic figure skating, took off running elatedly.
(Amy Sancetta/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 20 — Tara Lipinski, a 15-year-old girl wearing ice skates, blue sequins and an infectious smile, became the youngest Olympic gold medalist in figure skating history tonight, using a joyful performance to score an upset of fellow U.S. skater Michelle Kwan.

In a women's singles competition defined by drama and sportsmanship rather than predetermined winners and controversy, it was fitting that all three medalists — including Kwan and surprise bronze medal winner Lu Chen of China — wept as they took their bows at the White Ring arena.

Lipinski, two months younger than Sonja Henie when she won the gold medal in 1928 at 15 years 10 months, ran in elation across the ice after striking the finishing pose in her program. Lipinski also grabbed her head, stomped a foot and shook her fists as flowers and stuffed animals from the crowd rained onto the ice.

"I went out and had a great time," Lipinski said. "I didn't think about winning. I didn't think about beating anybody. I didn't want to come off the ice disappointed. I was so relieved to skate a great program under a lot of pressure. Doing it at the Olympics is just so emotional."

For Lipinski, it closed a circle — albeit a small one — that began when she stepped up onto an inverted soup bowl as a small child, pretending to receive an Olympic gold medal on a medal podium. It was just two years ago that Lipinski, the only child of Jack and Pat Lipinski of Sugar Land, Tex., finished fifth in the junior world championships.

"She's 15 years old, but you have to realize in her mind, she's not 15," said U.S. figure skater Todd Eldredge, 26, a close friend and training partner. "In her mind, she is much older, and she acts much older than that."

The night all but erased memories of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and the ill will that overshadowed the 1994 Olympic figure skating competition in Lillehammer, Norway. The evening also negated speculation throughout the week that Kwan, considered the consummate artist on ice, had the gold medal sewn up with the nine-judge panel regardless of her performance tonight.

In fact, Kwan skated brilliantly and Lipinski skated better — even Kwan and her coach, Frank Carroll, did not argue that. All agreed that Lipinski received the gold medal on merit.

"I knew this competition wasn't a piece of cake," said Kwan, the current U.S. champion, and world champion in 1996. "I came out of the rink happy. I skated my best; I trained hard. There was nothing more I could have done. It might not be the color medal I wanted, but I will take it."

Though the upset undoubtedly will cost Kwan millions of dollars in endorsements, it casts a redemptive stroke for figure skating, where judges are frequently accused of deciding their preferences before, rather than after, competitions.

And it could make Lipinski a very rich young woman. Michael Rosenberg, an agent who has represented many top skaters, speculated that Lipinski could make between $10 million and $12 million over the next four years from various commercial opportunities. Rosenberg estimated that Kwan, 17, could have made more than Lipinski — about $15 million — as a gold medal winner because of her greater maturity.

"It's easy for the gold," Rosenberg said. "For the silver, it's a different thing."
 Michelle Kwan, consoled by coach Frank Carroll, skated brilliantly but knew it wasn't enough. (Amy Sancetta/AP)

When Lipinski skated onto the ice tonight, pressure swirled inside the White Ring arena. Moments before, Kwan had executed a near-perfect program marred only by a bobble on a jump. Out of happiness and relief, Kwan burst into tears immediately after finishing. Said Kwan: "I had to pinch myself, and I almost did. I said, 'Wow, this is great!' "

As Lipinski skated around the ice, awaiting the start of her music, it seemed that even a flawless effort was unlikely to topple Kwan, who had finished ahead of Lipinski in two competitions this season, including last month's U.S. championships, where Kwan skated flawlessly. But four minutes later, it was clear the path of history had changed. Kwan did not see Lipinski's performance, but she heard her scores announced and knew Lipinski had won the gold.

"I knew when I heard the marks I didn't win," Kwan said. "There was a bit of disappointment and tears. But in the back of my mind, I knew I had skated really well. I came here with a job — to skate well — and I think I can walk away happy. C'est la vie, right? Even though you work hard, that doesn't mean you win a gold medal."

While Kwan might have missed a chance to go down as one of the most elegant skaters of all time, perhaps the best since 1968 gold medalist Peggy Fleming, Lipinski grabbed hold of a unique place in history as the youngest gold medalist ever.

Last year, Lipinski also became the youngest world champion, at 14. She is the first female skater to perform the difficult triple loop-triple loop combination jump at a world championships or Olympics. Her program tonight, with that combination, another triple-triple combination and seven triple jumps total, was the most technically difficult in Olympic history.

 Michelle Kwan: "I knew when I heard the marks I didn't win. There was a bit of disappointment and tears. But in the back of my mind, I knew I had skated really well."
(Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)
"The difference was the triple-triple, the technical part of Tara's program," said 1960 Olympic gold medalist Carol Heiss Jenkins, who finished second behind Tenley Albright in the last U.S. 1-2 finish, at the 1956 Games. "They are both beautiful skaters, but they have different styles."

Lipinski, who was second to Kwan in the U.S. nationals, also displayed an improved artistry that compelled the judges to give her marks of 5.8 and 5.9 on a scale of 6.0 for presentation. Kwan received all 5.9s for presentation but received lower technical marks than did Lipinski. Kwan led after Wednesday's short program, with Lipinski in second place, but lost because the long program is worth two-thirds of the final score.

As she did in the short program, Lipinski finished several jumps with ear-to-ear grins.

"I like her joy," Heiss Jenkins said. "The other night during the short program, she couldn't stop smiling. It's nice to see the joy put back in figure skating."

While Lipinski proved as ebullient a winner as she had been a skater, hopping up and down in the kiss-and-cry area after learning that six of the nine judges had awarded her first place, Kwan offered a classy acceptance of what for her was a stinging defeat.

"You've got to enjoy everything while it lasts," Kwan said. "I think all of us have to come off the rink happy and enjoying the moment."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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