The littlest came last: a girl so young—14—that only last week she'd lost her final baby molar; a girl as tiny, at 4'8" and 75 pounds, as the tooth fairy. But the elfin Tara Lipinski had been cunningly groomed for this moment. So when she took the ice last Saturday night at sold-out Nashville Arena, a buzz of anticipation swept through the crowd for the first time all week. Here, at last, was the drama we've come to expect of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Could she win the ladies' crown? Would the judges let her?
Until then the question on everyone's lips had been, Where's the passion? And where, oh where, were the tears? A figure skating championship without tears is like a country music tune without Mama, heartache or a pickup truck. It don't sell. Reigning world champion Todd Eldredge won his fourth men's title and seemed as excited as a man who had just passed through the checkout line at Kroger. "I skated O.K.," Eldredge said, by way of a review of his performance. At these championships, O.K. was good enough to win.
Thus it was left to the women's competition to put a bloom on the week and to remind everyone that in this most precarious of sports—in which entire futures are balanced on a sliver of metal digging into a shaving of ice—there is simply no such thing as a sure bet. Though if ever there was, Michelle Kwan was it.
The 16-year-old Kwan, who is from Torrance, Calif., had been on a self-described roll. Poised beyond her years, confident in her prodigious talent, she had won nine competitions in a row over the past 11 months (including the 1996 world championships) and 14 of 15 since the fall of '95. She had whipped the best of the professional skaters—'92 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi—in something called the Ultimate Four competition and appeared to be a shoo-in, not just to win these nationals and next month's worlds in Lausanne, but to win the '98 Olympics as well. "I want to be a legend, like Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming," Kwan had candidly said to Jere Longman of The New York Times in one of a series of interviews she did before the nationals. At 16 she was a champ with her eye on the ages.
But in a good way, a respectful way. There didn't appear to be any skater in the U.S. or elsewhere who could match her seamless combination of athleticism and artistry, so Kwan had raised her sights toward history. How did Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt do it? she wondered last week after easily winning the short program. How were they able to successfully defend title after title? ( Boitano won four national titles and two world championships; Witt won two Olympic gold medals.) How did they maintain their focus?
You just have to concentrate on one event at a time, Boitano told her. Don't get ahead of yourself. The advice of her coach, Frank Carroll, was equally sound. "You have to skate like you're taking the castle, not defending it," he said.
It was with those words in her head that Kwan took the ice as the next-to-last skater Saturday night—confident, poised and aggressive. While getting off to a solid start she landed her second-most-difficult element: the triple Lutz-double toe loop combination. Then she swung right into a planned triple toe-triple toe. She landed the first triple but doubled the second and fell. Hard. She doesn't fall often, especially not in competition, and she became discombobulated. "I was standing up, then I was on the ice, and it was like, What happened?" Kwan said afterward. "I panicked."
A hush of disbelief fell over the audience, and then came a groan as Kwan stumbled badly on her subsequent jump, a triple flip. Next was a triple loop, and Kwan fell again. The fans had seen enough. She needed help, and they clapped and cheered for the defending champion to pull herself together. It worked, too. Kwan fed off the energy and later thanked the crowd for the support. She finished strongly, but the damage had been done: She had landed only four of her seven triples cleanly. The castle gate was wide open.
Lipinski didn't have to be asked through twice—although the invitation came a few years before anyone expected it to. (Richard Callaghan, Lipinski's coach, had said they were building toward the 2002 Olympics.)
Lipinski, an only child, grew up near Newark, Del., and started skating at age six at the University of Delaware Ice Arena. At nine she moved with her parents, Pat and Jack, to Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston, where she trained for two years before it was clear to her mother that Tara's talent had surpassed the level of instruction she could get in the Lone Star State—not exactly a hotbed of figure skating. Mother and daughter moved back to the Delaware Figure Skating Club for two more years while Jack stayed in Houston as vice president of Coastal Corp. so he could pay the bills. At 12 Tara became the youngest gold medalist ever at the Olympic Festival. When Tara was 13 the Lipinskis raised eyebrows as she and Pat went on a whirlwind coaching tour, interviewing and taking sample lessons from the likes of Carlo Fassi and Kathy Casey before settling on Callaghan, who coaches at the Detroit Skating Club. This time the prodigy was discovering the mentor.