Lipinski leaps back to the top Texan, 15, pairs triples, artistry for Munich win

December 21, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MUNICH, Germany -- Skating's kid champion is back.

After an autumn of second-place finishes, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski bounded down a runway, stormed on to the ice, and delivered her finest free skating program in months to claim the top prize in the women's singles at the Champions Series Final.

Dressed in a royal blue outfit, her dark blond hair in a bun, the darling of Sugar Land, Texas, landed seven triple jumps during a four-minute program that blended her flawless leaping with her maturing artistry.

Heading into the final push to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Lipinski showed all the moves that lifted her to American and world titles last year.

And it couldn't have come at a better time.

Some in figure skating were beginning to doubt Lipinski's talents after she finished second at Skate America in October and Trophee Lalique in Paris last month. And the judges were penalizing her for a shaky Lutz jump.

But Lipinski stood firm against the pressure.

"For me, those second-place finishes were good," Lipinski said. "It gave me the motivation to win again. Being second, was like being the underdog. And I had to come up."

Even though her closest rival, American Michelle Kwan, skipped the Champions Series Final because of a stress fracture in her toe, Lipinski faced all the other would-be Olympic champions here. And next month in Philadelphia, she'll meet Kwan during the U.S. championships.

But Munich's free skate show was one of the best in years for women's figure skating.

Germany's Tanja Szewczenko continued her remarkable re-emergence in skating by landing six triple jumps and finishing second. And Russia's Maria Butyrskaya hit six triples to finish third.

"What more can I do?" Szewczenko said as a smile crossed her face. "I skated my best program. For me, it's like a victory."

Szewczenko is sure to provide one of the compelling tales of the Winter Olympics. Viral infections kept her off the ice for 1 1/2 years, and made her feel so sick and sluggish, she thought she was dying of cancer.

But after undergoing aggressive medical treatment, the 20-year-old recovered last summer, got back on the ice, and won twice in the fall.

"I can't believe all of this is happening," she said.

Still, she faces yet another small obstacle, because she is due to have her tonsils removed tomorrow.

"I hope I can have ice cream at Christmas," she said.

Another remarkable story occurred in the pairs, as Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze beat the reigning world champions, Germany's Mandy Woetzel and Ingo Steuer, to claim the top prize.

It was in January 1996 that Berezhnaya lay in a coma in a Latvian hospital after her former partner accidentally sliced her head with a skate blade during practice.

Berezhnaya's speech was affected by the accident. But she refused to quit.

"For me, this is like a miracle," Berezhnaya said.

The men's final heralded the ascent of a new star, Russia's Ilia Kulik.

Dressed in a yellow and black shirt that made him look like a bumble bee on skates, the 20-year-old Russian overwhelmed a star-studded field that included world champions Elvis Stojko of Canada and Todd Eldredge of the United States.

Kulik landed eight triple jumps to win first-place votes from six of the seven judges. He also showed new maturity, after touching down with two hands on a botched quadruple toe loop jump that opened the program.

In the past, he admitted, he would have folded.

But not now.

"I am skating more constant," he said. "I'm confident with my free program. Last season, I wasn't so confident."

Stojko fell while attempting the quad, but still managed eight triples, to finish second.

And Eldredge wiped away an injury-filled season to finish third with a gracefully choreographed program that included seven triples.

"It keeps you in suspense for Japan," Eldredge said after the final.

The judges may have difficulty handing out the places at the Olympics, because the men bring different talents to the ice. Stojko is the pure athlete. Eldredge is emerging as the top showman. And Kulik may have all the goods, if not yet the consistency.

In ice dancing, reigning Olympic champions Pasha Grishuk and Evgeny Platov of Russia cruised to their 20th straight win.

But the victory provided an unusual footnote to the event, since the team is coached by Tatiana Tarasova, who has built an emerging Russian dynasty at a training rink in Marlborough, Mass.

Tarasova also oversees Kulik's career.

And she even does the laundry for a couple of Ukrainian skaters who don't have a washing machine.

"She is a special person," Grishuk said of Tarasova. "She is like our mom. She takes care of us. She is a great coach. And she is a very smart woman."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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