BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
PHILADELPHIA - Tara Lipinski has no time to lose. She is 15 years old, after all, and that boyish figure won't last forever.
Eventually, the world's champion female skater will be a woman, and the laws of physics will eliminate her ability to fly. The sad truth of contemporary skating is that ladies singles is increasingly a game for girls.
If you don't win young, you're not likely to win at all.
The trend is unmistakeable. Not since 1990 has a world or Olympic championship been won by a woman old enough to vote.
Michelle Kwan was 15 years old when she won the world championship in 1996, only to lose to Lipinski, then 14, the following year. Oksana Baiul won the 1994 Olympic gold medal at 16. Some of the sequins set laments that grace is losing out to gymnastics in skating; that the transcendent triple jump has eroded the old emphasis on elegance and craft.
It's no accident, either. When the International Skating Union eliminated the tedious, training-intensive compulsory figures from international competition in 1991, it effectively provided young skaters with a short-cut to the top.
New learning curve
No longer was it necessary to master the painstaking process of carving exquisite figure eights. Skaters started moving through the ranks more swiftly, spared the long apprenticeship served by their predecessors, and ballet became secondary to buoyancy.
''In the past, when most people thought of women's figure skating, they thought of beauty, grace and artistry,'' says Nicole Bobek, a seasoned veteran of 20. ''Men's skating is more about strength and athleticism because, well, it's supposed to be. But women's skating is going that way, too, because of the jump factor, which I think is kind of sad.''
As recently as 1990, Jill Trenary won the World Championships with a jump list consisting of two toe loops, a flip and a salchow. Such a program would now seem as obsolete as Bobby Knight's theory of basketball.
The long program Lipinski will skate tonight at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships includes seven triple jumps, including a triple toe loop combination few of her predecessors could have contemplated. Sixteen-year-old Shelby Lyons, all 80 pounds of her, will attempt eight triples.
If the sky is to be skating's direction, this is not altogether a bad thing. Jumps and revolutions are easily counted and promote more objective judging. Compulsory figures were frequently corrupted by judging bias, so much so that superior free skaters were sometimes eliminated from medals contention.
Growing up takes toll
The concern in some camps is that skating's balance of power has shifted from mature, polished performers and toward little, adolescent leapers. Kwan, the 1996 world champion, attributes some of her 1997 slump to the difficulty of adjusting to her developing figure.
''Young people are sometimes not in touch with what's going on with their bodies,'' Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, said Friday. ''She's not this tiny, little Chinese girl. She has hips. She has a shape. When all that started to develop, she didn't know what was going on. She wondered, 'Why am I not skating as fast?' ''
Kwan's pristine short program Thursday would suggest her awkward stage has ended. Lipinski's, it appears, has yet to start. The defending U.S. champion was fourth after the short program because of a fall on a triple flip, but she retains a spring in her step few can match. Because of their respective places in the standings, Lipinski is unlikely to catch Kwan tonight. The Olympics, however, are another matter. Lipinski might look like the young Macaulay Culkin, but she leaps like Michael Jordan.
''I'm an admirer of Tara,'' said Glyn Watts, choreographer for Tonia Kwiatkowski. ''I think she's a very tough, scrappy competitor. When she's out on the ice, she looks like a little bitty young thing, but inside there's a little lion.''
Young as she is, her time is at hand.
Skating coverage from Associated Press