Lipinski edges Kwan as teens rule worlds Ninth-grader becomes youngest skating queen

March 23, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- The new champ is 14 and talks of shopping and schoolwork. The old champ is 16 and speaks of pressure and failure.

The new champ says that one day she'll lose. The old one says this is all just a sport, removed from real life.

For better or worse, this is skating's new age, dominated by a pair of American teen-agers.

Yesterday, Tara Lipinski, the ninth-grader from Sugar Land, Texas, edged Michelle Kwan of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., to win the women's title at the World Figure Skating Championships.

At 14 years, 9 months and 12 days, Lipinski became the sport's youngest champ, supplanting skating's first teen idol, Sonja Henie, who was one month older when she won the first of her 10 world titles.

"I think I'm in a little shock," Lipinski said. "I know it has happened. It is great."

The outcome ignited a frenetic buildup to the 1998 Winter Olympics. There will be exhibitions and competitions and the lure of millions of dollars in appearance fees, endorsements and prize money for the sport's two talented jumpers.

And, of course, there will be the battle for the Olympic gold in Nagano, Japan.

But that's all in the future. For now, there are just the images from this one day of skating, when a tiny girl who lost a last baby molar last month won a title.

There was Lipinski, dressed in white, a St. Theresa medal and a lucky charm that said, "Short but good," dangling from her neck. Before she skated, she bobbed in the runway like a boxer.

"You think a lot in that time," she said. "You think, 'Oh, what if?' You have to stop yourself and think positive things."

Lipinski is 4 feet 8 1/2 tall. She weighs 75 pounds. She hardly gets off the ice on her jumps, yet she twists like a cyclone. And she never misses.

She landed seven triple jumps and brought the crowd to its feet 30 seconds from the end of her program. And as she left the ice, she broke out in a smile.

And then there was Kwan, the 1996 champion, dressed in red with a pink sash, acting as the princess for whom the Taj Mahal was built, displaying maturity and artistry, landing six triples and bringing class to the worlds.

"It's a wonderful feeling to fly again," Kwan said.

The judges split their scorecards. Kwan, Lipinski and Russia's Irina Slutskaya, skating last, each received three first-place votes. But Kwan garnered six second-place votes to win the free skate, worth two-thirds of the overall score.

Yet Lipinski claimed the title because she was first in Friday's technical program and Kwan was fourth.

Vanessa Gusmeroli finished third overall. Nicole Bobek, the third American skater, whose coach, Carlo Fassi, died Thursday, faltered in the long program and finished 13th.

Kwan has lost to Lipinski three times in the past five weeks, at the U.S. nationals, the Champions Series final and the worlds. For weeks, skating had become a battle for her instead of a joy.

But yesterday, she regained her nerve. She decided not to be so serious. She said she thought of Scott Hamilton, the former Olympic champion who is battling cancer.

"That really put things in perspective," she said. "Here we are competing, and there he is fighting for his life."

Kwan said she'll be back in form next year.

"I have to train myself to be stronger and go for everything," she said.

Victory for Lipinski is still fresh. When she was 2 years old, she watched the 1984 Summer Olympics on television and climbed atop Tupperware bowls, imitating the champions who climbed atop victory podiums. At 3, she began roller skating. At 6, she donned ice skates.

Her arrival to the top of the sport has been predicted for three years. But when it came, it was packed with emotion. Her mother, Pat Lipinski, cried. Her father, Jack, smiled. The family had sacrificed much for this moment. Mother and daughter live in Detroit while the father lives in Houston.

Yesterday, they talked only of family matters, of the sparkling child they named after the plantation in "Gone With the Wind." This week, Tara is headed to the dentist. And the pediatrician.

"As a mom, you want her to do good, to be happy," Pat Lipinski said. "As a mom, you get nervous."

The parents say their daughter will get through the next year, when the pressures will mount and the Olympics beckon.

"She doesn't have to prove anything," Jack Lipinski said. "She doesn't have to be a world champion or a national champion next year."

Yet in this sport, every championship must be seized. So, already, plans are being made to refine Lipinski's style, to add a dash of artistry and difficulty to her repertoire. Her coach, Richard Callaghan, said his teen phenom will perform either a triple Axel or a quad next year.

That's right, a quad.

And Kwan will be waiting.

Asked how long this rivalry will last, Kwan smiled and raised her hands like cat's claws. She then said, "For the next 25 years."

"Well, we're both young," she said. "I don't know how long she intends to skate, but I'll be there."

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