Saturday, February 21, 1997
Lipinski: 'It felt so perfect'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tara Lipinski
Tara Lipinski kisses her gold medal Friday after her dramatic upset victory in the Olympic women's figure skating in Nagano, Japan.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - When Tara Lipinski was small, smaller even than now, she sometimes practiced on a piece of Tupperware.

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She would climb atop a plastic container and imagine it a medals stand. Lipinski has dreamed large since she was quite little, her eyes firmly fixed on the prize now in her possession.

An Olympic gold medal was draped around Lipinski's narrow neck Friday on a night that was part make-believe and part magic. Against daunting odds, under excruciating pressure, and despite the prevailing wisdom that the outcome was preordained, Lipinski fulfilled her childhood fantasy with a startling upset of fellow American Michelle Kwan.

She scaled the middle rise of the medals stand, and stood there wishing time would stop.

''I was so happy,'' she said, ''but also a little sad, knowing I was gonna have to get off. It felt so perfect.''

Tara Lipinski's young life came full circle Friday night with a series of spins and, particularly, triple toe loops. The 15-year-old skater won the Olympic ladies figure skating championship because her program was more ambitious and precise than Kwan's, and because her artistry no longer acts as an anchor.

If she was not perfect in the ladies free skate, she was pretty close.

Tara Lipinski
Lipinski glides across the ice during her free skate program.
(AP photo)
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Second in the standings following Wednesday's short program, Lipinski needed a knockout punch if she was to overtake her favored teammate. She responded with a four-minute routine that made Kwan look timid and wobbly by comparison.

Usually, it takes a dramatic spill to prevent a gold-medal favorite from winning in figure skating. But this time the two main contenders were considered so close the judges may actually have judged them instead of scoring with rubber stamps.

Lipinski was placed first by six of the nine judges, while her teammate persuaded the other three. American judge Susan Johnson chose Kwan, by 1 - 10th of a presentation point, and only Ukrainian judge Alfred Korytek saw the two rivals separated by a larger margin. That this decision was somehow split speaks to skating's bias that exists for the betting favorite. Kwan's jumps were not nearly as difficult as Tara's and her landings were not nearly so soft. When Kwan wobbled on a triple flip during the second minute of her program, she effectively cleared the way for a Lipinski charge. The performance standards Kwan had set at the U.S. Nationals last month proved too difficult to duplicate.

Tara Lipinski
Lipinski, flanked by her coaches, reacts after hearing her free skate scores.
(AP photo)
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''In Philadelphia, I was more free,'' Kwan said. ''I was flying, and tonight I was more cautious. I took my time. It seemed I was in my own world, like I didn't open up and really let go. . . .

''When I started at the beginning of my program, I thought everything was going really well. I had a few problems in my jumps, but I fought through it and by the time I finished, I thought, 'Oh, my God, this can't be happening.' I did everything. I landed all the jumps. I don't think I was perfect, but I thought I skated my best. I had to pinch myself. It was a magical moment for me.''

Each judge gave Kwan a 5.9 (out of 6.0) for her artistic score, but the marks for technical merit topped out at 5.8. In grading Kwan, the judges were obliged to allow for the possibility that a later skater might improve on her performance.

Usually, this is a formality. Tara Lipinski forced the judges to confront their consciences.

Tara Lipinski
Runner-up Michelle Kwan, left, kisses Lipinski during the medal ceremony.
(AP photo)
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She skated the same program that left her in second place in Philadelphia, but this time she made it look like a joy instead of a job. The rap on Lipinski has been that she is a robot, more of a mechanical marvel than an artist.

No longer true.

There was a passion in her performance that had sometimes been missing, and the excitement borne of the sense that here was a skater going for broke. Kwan's program, though beautifully choreographed, does not test her as much as an athlete. Two of Lipinski's combinations - the triple lutz - double toe loop and the triple toe loop - double toe loop - are not attempted by any of her rivals.

When she had finished her program Friday, Tara Lipinski grabbed her head with both hands as if she had astonished even herself. She was more reserved on the medals stand. All that Tupperware training had paid off.

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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