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 Tara Lipinski glides past Michelle Kwan to win gold.
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At 15, Lipinski Displays Her Joy to the World
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, February 21, 1998; Page B1


NAGANO — Tara Lipinski embraced these 1998 Winter Olympics with all the exuberance of youth and all the confidence of a champion, with stars in her eyes, and steel in her heart. All of 15 years old, Lipinski wanted to squeeze every last moment out of her Olympic experience, to soak up all the wonders that came with living her dream.

What Lipinski did Friday night, though, was give these Olympics its most glorious performance: a stunning, spirited long program that snatched the gold medal for women's figure skating from favorite Michelle Kwan in one of the biggest upsets in this sport's history.

Lipinski is barely bigger than the left thigh of Akebono, the sumo wrestler who stood beside her prior to the Opening Ceremonies 13 days ago. She will leave as Nagano's brightest star. The youngest women's champion in the history of Olympic singles skating — she is two months younger than Sonja Henie was when she won in 1928 — Lipinski did far more than capture a gold when she skated at White Ring. She transformed a sport.

The most common criticism of figure skating is that the favorites have such a tremendous advantage in the minds of the judges that someone else could skate the program of a lifetime and still not win. That certainly was the sense at this competition: Most observers, myself included, felt that Kwan had to fall, or make a similarly glaring mistake, in her long program in order for Lipinski to have any shot at the gold.

Lipinski proved all of us wrong.

The record will reflect that Lipinski outperformed Kwan — who did skate cleanly, save for a minor wobble on one jump — with her technical superiority, her program far more complicated than the one performed by the 17-year-old Californian. The truth is that Lipinski beat Kwan with her spirit, with the joy that seemed to exude from her tiny body and fill up the entire building. Everyone expected Lipinski to have higher technical marks than her rival. No one expected her to outshine the woman whose artistry is so stunning that she is rightfully known as the most beautiful skater in the world.

Kwan floated this evening, her performance gorgeous and graceful. Lipinski soared.

"I had that feeling of pure joy," Lipinski said, "and I went out there and put it in my program."

An eager underdog who was second in the world's view when she arrived here and second, still, after Wednesday's short program, Lipinski treated these Olympics like a child invited into her own secret garden. She explored the athletes' village and this city with fascination, and — on this day of all days — she even managed to sneak down to central Nagano, where she stood in line with other young people waiting to have their picture turned into a page full of Snowlet-embossed stickers.

"I think the best decision we made was to let her live in the village," said Pat Lipinski, Tara's mother. "We sat her down and told her that no matter what happened, she had to enjoy having been here."

Under considerably more pressure, Kwan shrouded herself in her own little universe, and — by her admission — that may have affected her performance Friday night. She skated beautifully, gracefully, with very few flaws. There was the sense, though, that she held something back.

"I was in my own world," Kwan said of her performance. "I didn't open up or really let go."

When Kwan is at her best, to watch her is to feel as if one has wandered upon a nymph in the forest, the vision a beautiful gift to be watched in silent rapture. She skated that way last month at the nationals in Philadelphia, moving judges to tears.

Lipinski is her opposite — a bubbly, enthusiastic skater who smiles big for the judges and skates as if she wants to connect with every individual in the house. Sometimes, that approach seems artificial, almost stilted. This time, though, Lipinski used her smile and her skate blades to radiate her enthusiasm for the Olympics.

The program was triumph from start to finish, when Lipinski enthusiastically ran across the ice to the center of the arena, her fists flung high. She landed every jump, and — in true Lipinski style — she brazenly chose to do her toughest combination, a triple loop — triple loop, directly in front of the judges, where she could play it to her greatest advantage.

That gamble paid off. When Lipinski came down cleanly on the second triple, her mouth opened in a huge grin of success, while her coach, Richard Callaghan, pounded his fists against the boards in glee.

"I was having such a great time," Lipinski said later, and Callaghan, grinning, seemed to agree.

Watching the program, her eyes frequently welling with tears, Lipinski's mother could not help but remember a lifetime full of moments with her precocious daughter. She saw little Tara at age 3, falling and picking herself up, falling and picking herself up. She saw her at age 5, landing smack on her bottom after attempting jumps that were far too advanced for her age.

Pat Lipinski remembered wiping away tears on those days when Tara had a bad performance. She remembered the pride she had felt just two days before, when Tara skated a short program that included the same enthusiasm and emotion as the one she skated on Friday night.

"All of it went through my mind, all of it," Pat Lipinski said. "Her ups, her downs."

The greatest high, though, came when Lipinski watched the scores appear on the video screen and literally jumped out of her seat and squealed with glee. The judges had carefully scored Kwan extremely high for presentation — she got 5.9s across the board — so that they could still award her the gold medal no matter how technically superior Lipinski's program managed to be. Instead, Lipinski did the unthinkable: She made it impossible for the judges to follow through on their plan.

And when the little girl from Sugar Land, Tex., was draped in her gold medal, it was hard for anyone — Kwan included — to begrudge her. The essence of a gracious loser, Kwan let nary a frown destory Lipinski's big moment. "I like you, Tara," she would say later in the night, while Lipinski was basking in the spotlight. "All of us have to come out of this happy, and enjoying the moment."

The medal ceremony was particularly poignant for American Todd Eldredge, who shares a coach and practice rink with Lipinski, and who had his own medal hopes shattered when he fell in his long program less than a week ago. Eldredge is 26, his amateur career essentially over, and he knew far better than Lipinski how special it was to stand on that victory platform and hear the U.S. national anthem play.

"It was hard for me to watch, but it wasn't hard, too, because I like Tara so very much," Eldredge said. "From this Olympics, I won't remember much about myself. Mostly, what I'll remember is Tara on the medal stand."

He will not be the only one.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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