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Kwan, Lipinski Top Short Program; Bobek Falls
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page C1

 American Nicole Bobek fell during her short program Wednesday, ending up in 17th place.
(Amy Sancetta/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 18 — U.S. figure skaters Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, teenagers still naive in certain ways, each took the ice for their first Olympic Games tonight and displayed a competitive maturity that in older skaters is often lacking — or simply lost under the pressure of Olympic competition.

After nearly impeccable short programs, Kwan, 17, sat in first place and Lipinski, 15, in second above third-place Russian Maria Butyrskaya, with the gold medal at stake in Friday's concluding long program. Another U.S. favorite, 20-year-old Nicole Bobek, made three major mistakes and burst into tears after leaving the ice. She finished 17th.

Kwan and Lipinski seemed fueled by youthful exuberance yet controlled by a composure each had at times lacked in competitions during the last 12 months. Lipinski completed a triple flip — which she fell attempting during a traumatic U.S. nationals in January — with a shout and an irrepressible smile. Kwan looked into the stands before beginning her program and was motivated by the sight of the fans with their U.S. flags.

"I thought, God, I'm in heaven," she said. "There were people clapping, a million people watching and I was by myself skating. Nothing mattered. I said it's me and the ice and that's it."

Lipinski, who skated before Kwan, said she had never poured so much of her heart into a performance.

"That was the first time I've done the program that I thought I could cry," said Lipinski, who did begin crying seconds after completing it. "I can't even explain that feeling. It's so hard, so hard at that moment. When you do it, it's like a miracle."

Highly regarded Frenchwoman Laetitia Hubert, a three-time Olympian, fell on a jump and found herself 12th; and Butyrskaya, this year's European champion, two-footed a landing and thus couldn't touch Kwan or Lipinski — who skated without so much as a bobble in the 2-minute 40-second program that severely penalizes any technical mistakes. China's Lu Chen finished fourth, and Russia's Irina Slutskaya fifth. Any of the top three could win the gold Friday by winning the long program, which counts for two-thirds of the score.

As Kwan and Lipinski sat side-by-side behind microphones after tonight's competition, wearing identical Team USA jackets and high voltage smiles, it was easy to forget the difficult path each took to this place.

Kwan lost her U.S. and world championship titles early last year to the upstart Lipinski after making mistakes in the short programs at both competitions. Kwan's disappointment was so great she became angry with herself, and decided the theme of this season would be the joy of skating, since skating is her favorite thing to do. It is also the theme of Friday's long program to "Angel's Song" by William Alwyn.

"When I'm on the ice, I don't think anything can stop me," Kwan said. "I'm really confident on the ice. Even off the ice, I might think too much, but when I walk on the ice, it's okay. It's like medicine."

It was during Lipinski's rise that the Kwan-Lipinski rivalry was born. After the 1997 world championships, in which Kwan finished second to Lipinski, this pair was labeled the future of women's figure skating and figured to duel through the 1998 Olympics.

When the 1997-98 season began last fall, it was Lipinski's turn to be second best. She lost to Kwan at Skate America in October. Then Lipinski finished second at Trophee Lalique in November, facing heavy criticism for a tiny technical flaw in her Lutz, which appears to have been corrected.

Many wondered whether she was cracking under the pressure of having been the youngest female to win the world title.

 Tara Lipinski was second behind rival Michelle Kwan after Wednesday's short program.
(Doug Mills/AP)

Meanwhile, Kwan's season took a different sort of nosedive. A stress fracture in her foot flared up in November and forced her to miss two months of competition. As Lipinski seemed to be recovering from her difficulties with a victory in December's Champions Series final, Kwan was still rehabilitating.

Yet at the U.S. nationals, her first competition after the injury, Kwan finished first as Lipinski fell during the short program and finished second.

There was no repeat of past mistakes tonight.

"It's fun," Lipinski said. "I didn't want to get off the ice. Tonight was so memorable, it was even better than worlds [in 1997]. It's just a feeling I can't describe."

Bobek experienced feelings tonight she did not care to describe. After a short program that included a fall on her combination triple Lutz, a double Axel that was supposed to be a triple and a bad landing on another jump, Bobek rushed from the kiss-and-cry area with tears streaming down her cheeks, declining to take questions.

"Obviously, she was more nervous than she ever has been," said Bobek's coach, Christa Fassi. "She's very upset. She does not want to speak to anybody, as you can well understand. Of course, she will skate in the next round. We are not poor losers."

Bobek, the 1995 national champion, has endured a variety of difficulties in recent years, including the death of her coach, Carlo Fassi, during last year's world championships.

Yet, labeled one of the three members of the U.S.'s figure skating Dream Team, Bobek was considered a strong medal favorite.

The Olympic gold medal, however, seems to have become the province of either Kwan or Lipinski.

"In my start pose," Kwan said, "I thought: Ready or not, here I go."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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