'Sugar Land Express' is on fast track to fame Lipinski, 14, targets world skating crown

March 20, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Take away the agent, the personal Web site and the prospect of earning more than $1 million in the next year, and Tara Lipinski is like most any other 14-year-old figure skating phenom.

She collects stuffed frogs, likes to shop and enjoys watching "Friends."

And she loves to win.

When the women take the ice tomorrow during the short program at this year's World Figure Skating Championships, all the attention will be focused on the 4-foot-8 1/2 , 75-pound girl who has crossed America in search of skating fame and fortune.

Last month, Lipinski became the youngest-ever U.S. champion. This week, she may be crowned the youngest women's world champion, beating the sport's first teen idol, Sonja Henie, by a month.

Ready or not, the sport is going to have to deal with this determined kid dubbed "The Sugar Land Express."

Lipinski is like a snowflake on blades. She floats along the ice, soars through triple jumps and tugs at the hearts of judges and fans. Even though she wears child-sized jeans and size-5 shoes, she is not some sort of cuddly, Smurf-like figure in a tutu. She is a workaholic competitor who can't stand to miss a jump or a spin.

"I love to jump," she says. "I'm not afraid."

She doesn't fear heights -- just roller coasters. But this year, Lipinski has been forced to adjust to the roller coaster of newly found fame.

After winning last month's U.S. championships, she made the rounds of the morning talk shows, sat for a People magazine photo shoot, met David Letterman and made a swing through a New York fashion showroom. Oh, and she sent her regrets to Oprah, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno.

She was quickly back at the practice rink for a little fine polishing and back to her schoolwork. Tutored four hours a day, the ninth-grader enjoys algebra and biology, says she wants to go to college, and is thinking of becoming a lawyer.

"I love skating," she says. She was on roller skates as a 3-year-old and figure skates when she was 6.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Wilmington, Del., Lipinski has been a skating gypsy. She got her first dose of serious training at the University of Delaware. In 1991, her family moved to Sugar Land, Texas, when her father was appointed vice president of a oil firm.

But after two years skating at a rink in a Houston mall, it was obvious she needed top coaching to match her blossoming skills so she and her mother, Pat, moved back to Delaware in 1993.

After her fifth-place finish at the 1996 junior worlds, the family broke with Lipinski's Delaware coach, Jeff DiGregorio. The Lipinskis then engaged in a cross-country coaching search, trying out all the top names in the sport before settling on Richard Callaghan in Detroit.

"It's very easy to work with Tara," says Callaghan, who also coaches reigning men's world champion Todd Eldredge.

"She comes into the rink wanting to be there. The difficulty I have with her is she wants to be on the ice too much. And we're still working that out. You can't physically remove her. When it's time for Tara to be finished, and she wants to do more, I find out why she feels she wants to do more. She's 14. I still want her healthy at 24."

Despite Callaghan's caution, it's apparent that Lipinski is on a fast track, forced to deal with the demands of a rapidly growing pro sport that is run increasingly by agents and television producers.

For her 13th birthday, Lipinski got an agent, Michael Burg. Now, she has the Web site, jammed with photos and diary entries.

Lipinski is being carefully marketed and will probably spend her next summer vacation as a headliner on a 45-city skating tour. Following the path of the current world champion, Michelle Kwan, 16, Lipinski is likely to wind up a millionaire before she gets her driver's license.

"Money will not be a factor for Tara Lipinski," Burg says. "Her priorities will be on the ice. Opportunities will come and go."

For now, Lipinski's focus is on winning the worlds. Her main rivals here figure to be the other Americans, Kwan and Nicole Bobek. In her short program, she performs to the theme from the movie "Little Women." In her long program, she soars to soundtrack music from "Sense and Sensibility" and "Much Ado About Nothing."

She may be young and tiny, but she yearns to have a classic, adult look. The child who finished 15th in the world last year has been transformed into a star.

"I have a more sophisticated program than last year," she says. "I wear my hair in a bun. My dresses are different. And I'm working on the ice to make my program more mature."

Will she be nervous before she skates? Of course.

"You need nerves," she says. "And you need to be calm."

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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