Little Lipinski takes big step toward title Texan, 14, hits jumps to take lead in worlds

March 22, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- She's tiny. A speck on ice. Her head barely rises above the dasher boards. The flower girls are taller.

But it doesn't matter. Women's figure skating could soon be ruled by a little girl who gave up reading "Little Women" at the midway point.

Yesterday, 14-year-old Tara Lipinski, the 4-foot-8 1/2 , 75-pound skating sprite, moved a step closer to becoming the sport's youngest world champion. Dressed in a green velvet outfit and performing to the theme music from the movie "Little Women," Lipinski settled her nerves, hit her jumps and led the way in the women's technical program at the World Figure Skating Championships.

Today, the reigning U.S. champion will go for the world title in the 4-minute, 30-second free skate final, worth two-thirds of the overall score. If the ninth-grader from Sugar Land, Texas, wins, she'll knock Sonja Henie from the pedestal of youngest-ever world champion.

The irony is that if the sport's rulers had their way, Lipinski wouldn't even be here. Skaters under 15 are now banned from senior world competitions, but since Lipinski competed in the worlds last year, finishing 15th, she got an exemption.

"I think if I thought I could win this, it would put too much pressure on me. Also, it would transfer my focus somewhere else," Lipinski said.

Vanessa Gusmeroli of France, a former water ski champion, was second. Maria Butyrskaya of Russia was third while reigning champion Michelle Kwan of the United States was fourth after spinning out of her combination jump.

Nicole Bobek of the United States missed two jumps and landed in eighth place. Clearly, Bobek showed the strain of competing one day after the sudden death of her coach, Carlo Fassi. She said she cried when she saw Fassi's wife, Christa, standing by the boards.

"My mind was racing," said Bobek, the 1995 bronze medalist.

China's Chen Lu, second at the 1996 worlds and first in 1995, didn't even make the final cut of 24 for the free skate final. Struggling with an injured foot and unhappy with her country's skating federation, she was 25th. To get to next year's Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Chen will have to compete for one of six spots at a special 30-woman qualifying event in Vienna, Austria, later this year.

Kwan had difficulty coping with the pressure of the short program, where one mistake can shatter a skater's confidence.

For all her grace and elegance, Kwan, 16, continues to be betrayed by her nerves. By spinning out of her triple Lutz, double toe loop combination, Kwan missed her chance of seizing the lead. When she finished, she threw her hands down in disgust. Later, she cried.

"I waited a little too long on the jump," Kwan said. "I just couldn't get out of it quick enough. My body was gone, but my legs were still there."

Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, was exasperated.

"What can I say? You want an answer to something I probably don't even understand myself. She has been skating great in practice and mentally she was very ready to do this. You want an answer; I can't give it," he said.

Kwan added that her frustration showed "I guess I'm hungry for it again. I know what I want."

But to hold her title, Kwan needs to finish at least two places ahead of Lipinski in the free skate.

Yet Lipinski has clearly been the best skater through the week, dominating practices, the qualifying session, and the short program.

"She's just a 14-year-old with a real mission," said Richard Callaghan, Lipinski's coach.

Lipinski's athletic style may upset skating purists, but she is obviously at the forefront of a new era, in which jumps can shove aside artistry.

"With all the really young skaters that are coming onto the scene, it seems that we are going back to the days of baby gymnasts," said Laetitia Hubert of France, who was seventh.

And the best gymnast of all is in the lead.

Ready or not, skating may soon be running on Tara Time.

NOTES: Oksana Gritschuk and Yevgeny Platov won their fourth consecutive ice dance world title with a performance that earned two perfect 6.0s. The Russian couple have been unbeaten in major competition since 1994. Second was Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov of Russia. Third went to Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz. Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow held on to sixth place, the best showing by an American couple since 1990.

Ice dance

Final standings

1. Oksana Gritschuk and Yevgeny Platov, Russia, 2.0 factored placings; 2. Angelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov, Russia, 4.0; 3. Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, Canada, 5.8; 4. Sophie Moniotte and Pascal Lavanchy, France, 8.2; 5. Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat, France, 9.8; 6. Elisabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow, United States, 12.0; 7. Irina Lobacheva and Ilya Averbukh, Russia, 14.0; 8. Irina Romanova and Igor Yaroshenko, Ukraine, 16.0; 9. Barbara Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio, Italy, 18.8; 10. Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas, Lithuania, 19.2.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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