NAGANO, Japan -- They have shopped. They have practiced. They have tried to gain Olympic experiences even as their every moves have been cataloged and noted by judges, parents and the media.
And now, they are ready to take over the Winter Olympics.
Tomorrow, Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski will finally grab center stage with the start of the women's figure skating short program.
All other competitors, even all other sports in Nagano, may now be dwarfed by two American teen-agers.
Rarely, have two young Olympic performers faced such pressure or scrutiny. The athletes and their entourages of coaches, agents and families have approached this showdown in different fashions.
Kwan, 17, the reigning U.S. champion, has been whisked in and out of practices, where she has performed her routines with faultless precision. She arrived at the Games after the opening ceremony to get additional treatment for the stress fracture of the second toe of her left foot. To weed out distractions, she has stayed in a hotel far from the Olympic Village.
"I feel like I'm getting an Olympic experience," she said last week.
And yesterday, as she spoke briefly to the media after a practice, her father Danny's voice could be heard squawking in a walkie-talkie held by her coach, Frank Carroll. Dad had arranged for a car, and was ready to go.
Still, Kwan is trying to savor every moment here.
"When I stepped out on to the practice rink the first time, all I can say is, this is beautiful to see the Olympic rings, the Nagano signs all over," she said. "I was almost in tears."
Lipinski, 15, the reigning world champion who has struggled a bit this season, has taken a different approach. Although her practices have been pockmarked with tiny missteps, she's been skipping around the Olympic Village and venues, seemingly enjoying herself on the eve of her greatest test.
Lipinski has stayed in the Olympic Village, met some star athletes, sewn patches for friends, and talked almost daily to the media. She was a joyful participant in the opening ceremony. She also attended the men's skating, to root for her training partner, Todd Eldredge. When Eldredge faltered badly in the men's final, Lipinski buried her face in her hands.
"I'm ready to compete," she said.
Certainly, the skating world is ready to watch both of them perform under an unforgiving spotlight.
There are other skaters, of course.
American Nicole Bobek is the wild card of the event. She could help the United States to an unprecedented medal sweep, she could also upset the entire Kwan-Lipinski storyline and make off with the gold.
"I look in the newspapers, and it's always Tara and Michelle," Bobek said. "It's never me. It's kind of upsetting sometimes."
The other major performer who could turn the competition upside down is Russia's Maria Butyrskaya, the reigning European champion who at 25, brings an adult elegance to an often child-like competition.
But Butyrskaya faces a tough task, since she will be the first to skate and face the judges' marks.
For pressure, hardly any sport can beat Olympic skating. In tomorrow's 2-minute, 40-second short program, the skaters will have to carefully complete eight required elements. One slip could send a performer rocketing right out of medal contention.
"I think everyone is in the same boat," Kwan said. "There is a lot of pressure in the short program to get in the top three. I was watching the men's short. That is what competition is all about. Your hands are shaking and you have butterflies in your stomach. But I do like it."
In Friday's four-minute free skate, the skaters will have a chance to show their true skills and star-power, performing triples and spins to musical scores of their choice.
Many around skating claim that Kwan is the heavy favorite.
"Only she can lose the gold," said Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic women's gold medalist.
"Michelle's spins are beautiful. Her spiral sequence is very difficult. All of the elements of the short program are equal, are one. She makes the music come alive."
In three major competitions this year, Kwan has beguiled the judges. And at the U.S. championships, she beat Lipinski, winning over all nine judges.
"The skating still has to take place," said 1984 men's champion Scott Hamilton. "It's hard. Anything can happen.
"Michelle and Tara are equally matched," he said. "Michelle's big victory at the nationals should put her in the driver's seat. She is capable of another great performance. And Tara, I love her program. She is very finished. What might keep people thinking that she isn't an artistic skater is that she looks so young. She looks real young."
Even with makeup and outfits, there's no getting around the notion that Lipinski, 4 feet 10 1/2 , looks as if she should be in middle school, not the Winter Games.
Yet she has tried very hard to appeal to the judges this year, especially in her long program skated to "The Rainbow."
"I'm 15," she said. "I'm skating to very mature music. It's positive. It's beautiful. You don't have to skate to something too mature to make yourself seem older."
Sandra Bezic, the choreographer for Lipinski, said what makes this match compelling are the skaters' contrasting styles.
"They're not the same, it's not fair to compare them," she said. "Tara is at the stage where she is changing every day. All she has to do is listen to her heart, remember her dreams and don't read anything in the paper. She is not a child and she is not a woman. But teen-ager isn't a good enough word for her. My advice to her would be to relax and enjoy everything. Because what she is is pretty extraordinary."
And what about Kwan.
"Michelle is at the pinnacle now," Bezic said.
For two nights and two performances, the teens will take over the Olympics. Who will get the gold? That's the great surprise.
Pub Date: 2/17/98