Tears will only light fire under Lipinski

January 10, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- What if Tara Lipinski is still in fourth place at the end of the U.S. Figure Skating championships?

Her coach, Richard Callaghan, smiled gently.

"She won't be," he said. "She's too much of a fighter."

Even at the age of 15. Even at 4 feet 10, 80 pounds.

Lipinski fell attempting a triple flip in Thursday's short program. She fell again attempting a Lutz yesterday at practice. And still, nearly everyone in the sport is convinced that she will skate a dazzling long program tonight.

"I expect a fight," said Glyn Watts, a coach for Tonia Kwiatkowski. "It's just her inner person.

What exactly is that inner person?

"A tiger," Watts said. "A little tiger."

Lipinski, the defending U.S. and world champion, probably can't catch Michelle Kwan for first place. Yet, even if she skates poorly, she'll almost certainly be named to the Olympic team.

The fix is in, as it so often is with figure skating, but don't tell Team Tara. These days, it's easier to get an interview with Eddie Murray than it is with La Lipinski.

The little diva (divette?) addressed the media after Thursday's short program, drying her eyes long enough to announce, "I still believe I'll do a clean long, and a great long."

Nicole Bobek, for one, wouldn't doubt it.

"Tara is amazing," said the 20-year-old Bobek, who is second entering tonight's competition. "Her mind is not that of a typical 15-year-old. I don't think I thought like that when I was 15. She thinks like an adult."

So, Lipinski remains formidable, even if she looks like Macaulay Caulkin's twin sister. At the '96 world championships, she climbed from 23rd after the short program to 15th after the long -- and back then, she was only 13.

"I tried to keep my composure and told everyone I was fine," Lipinski recalled in her autobiography, "Triumph on Ice." (116 pages! Lots of exclamation points!) "But it wasn't true. I was mad at myself. I had wasted an opportunity."

Presumably, Lipinski is angry at herself again, but she's in adifferent position now. Once, she was the adorable underdog. Now, she's the highly scrutinized favorite. The transition hasn't been easy.

Lipinski finished second in her first two Olympic-style competitions this season. She admitted to performing a flawed Lutz. And a 25-year-old rival, Russia's Maria Butyrskaya, called her skating "childish."

Still, Lipinski recovered to win a major pre-Olympic event in Munich on Dec. 20. She seemed poised for a big showing at the national championships. But her stunning tumble changed everything, at least for two days.

Callaghan was unavailable to talk about his prodigy yesterday (Favorite car: "Any car I'll be able to drive once I get my license." Favorite magazines: Teen and Seventeen. It's all in "Triumph On Ice.")

Of all people, it was Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, who rushed to Lipinski's defense.

"I feel like our country is the only country in the world that kind of likes to pull our athletes apart," he said. "Michelle is the underdog this year. It seems like everyone is behind her. Last year, it seemed like everyone was behind Tara.

"I don't understand that. You take Tara Lipinski apart and the judges take a second look. What is that all about? I don't think it's helpful tearing her apart."

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The reporters' questions or the judges' low scores?

Carroll need not worry -- it's possible that his own skater will benefit from the sport's bizarre politics, if the powers-that-be determine that Lipinski reached success too quickly, and that Kwan, 17, now deserves her own turn.

Lipinski's victory in Munich appeared to silence that argument, but Kwan missed the event with an injury. The real test, of course, will come in Nagano. Lipinski needs to perform well tonight to enter the Olympics in a positive frame of mind.

"She's been skating so well lately, something like this is just kind of a fluke," said five-time U.S. men's champion Todd Eldredge, who trains with Lipinski at the Detroit Skating Club. "It happens to everyone."

Well, Lipinski isn't everyone. She was a world champion at 14. She's a pre-Olympic favorite at 15. No one knows if she can handle the favorite's role. No one knows if she can handle this new type of adversity.

"It's got to be tough," the 26-year-old Kwiatkowski said. "But she's a tough, tough girl, a tough skater. It's only one mistake she made. It's not like she made a few. I'm sure she's going to skate great."

Kwiatkowski's coach agreed.

"I'm an admirer of Tara," Watts said. "She's a very tough, scrappy competitor. I like what she's about on the ice. She looks like a cute little young kid, but inside there's a real lion."

A brave lion. A ferocious tiger. A wounded animal.

Pub Date: 1/10/98

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