Tara: more fun, but Games? Lipinski future golden, maybe not Olympian

February 22, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAGANO, Japan -- She slept with her gold medal, just as she always dreamed of doing. She appeared on David Letterman's television show to trade quips and celebrate her triumph. She skated in an exhibition in which the only thing that mattered was pleasing the crowd.

But now comes the tough part for 15-year-old Tara Lipinski.

What do you do for an encore?

History's youngest Winter Olympic gold medalist faces a tricky future after defeating American teammate Michelle Kwan in Friday's women's figure skating final.

She's not just an athlete anymore, she's a commodity.

And she's not just another tiny skater with big Olympic dreams -- she is the Olympic champ, holding a medal that can be spun out into millions of dollars in endorsements.

But she's still just a kid who has to get back to her schoolwork and wants desperately to get back to her hometown of Sugar Land, Texas, for a planned parade.

"I woke up and said, 'OK, it wasn't a dream,' " Lipinski said yesterday. "These days are the best days of my life."

She received a call of congratulations from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. So, does this mean America isn't going to go to war with Iraq since Albright has time to call a figure skater?

"No comment," Lipinski said diplomatically.

Lipinski said another call came from the "mayor of Michigan" -- oops, make that the governor.

And an early morning earthquake that rumbled through Japan apparently didn't have much of an effect on the kid champ.

"What earthquake?" she said.

Lipinski is in her own world, savoring her greatest triumph. Yet she faces days of decisions as figure skating continues to expand and business opportunities beckon.

Skating doesn't stop. There is always another tour, another competition, another made-for-television spectacle on the horizon.

To remain in Olympic-caliber events sanctioned by the International Skating Union, Lipinski will have to continue to refine her skills, adding jumping tricks while maintaining artistry.

She also could jump to the less-technically challenging pro circuit, joining the likes of ex-Olympic champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt.

But if Lipinski stays in the big Olympic-style events, she'll face a familiar foe. Kwan is in for the long haul, once again vowing that she will continue on until the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"For the last two years, it has been the same," Kwan said. "Tara and I are close. If we decide to skate to 2002, it will be a big battle. This is a competition. You fight for that top spot, that top medal."

But Lipinski hasn't made any commitments about staying in the competitive end of the sport, as opposed to joining the pro circuit.

The world championships will be held next month in Minneapolis and Lipinski said last night she will be there to defend her title, though she's less than excited about it right now.

"I don't want to think about it," Lipinski had said the day after winning the gold medal.

"We haven't even discussed it," Lipinski's coach, Richard Callaghan, had said then.

Later, he cautioned about drawing any conclusions from their hedging, saying, "I think it would be unfair to Tara to say a yes or no decision right now."

But Lipinski's agent, Mike Burg, said: "It's nuts to have a world championship after the Winter Olympics."

He added: "If she did the worlds and lost, does that hurt? I don't know. If she doesn't do the worlds, does that mean she's turning pro? No."

About the only sure thing in Lipinski's future is that she is booked for a 62-date tour of world and Olympic champions, which begins in Baltimore on April 8.

"Oh yeah, she'll be there," Burg said.

Burg heads Edge Marketing, based in Charlotte, N.C. He has been Lipinski's agent since she was 13, and admits that representing an adolescent creates challenges.

"The responsibility you have in managing a 15-year-old is 10 times the responsibility of representing a football player," he said.

Burg's job is to cultivate Tara Inc., ensuring that she has a long corporate shelf life.

"I think she is one of the most marketable female athletes in the world," he said.

There have been other Olympic champions who have turned gold into corporate cash, among the more successful gymnast Mary Lou Retton and skaters Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming.

Others apparently didn't make as much from their gold as they could have. The most recent case is Ukraine's Oksana Baiul, who won the gold in 1994, came to America and eventually ended up in an auto wreck in which she was charged with drunken driving.

"We all saw what happened with Oksana," Burg said. "But Oksana and Tara are two different young ladies. Tara is smart enough to make decisions. She loves to skate. No one is pushing Tara on the ice."

Apparently, it's Tara who wants to skate. She'll be in New York next week for a round of interviews with the morning talk shows, and already, she is talking about getting ice time.

"If she were the queen of England she'd skate four hours a day," Burg said.

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