It was a decidedly different story on the women's side. Five skaters had won the women's crown in the last five years, and 14-year-old Tara Lipinski from Sugar Land, Texas, was bidding to be the sixth in six. The 4'8" Lipinski had beaten 16-year-old Michelle Kwan, the defending champion from Torrance, Calif., twice in the last month, at the U.S. nationals and at the Champions Series final, and had been so consistent she'd been unflatteringly called "the robotic shrimp." Kwan, meanwhile, was struggling for the first time in her career, going through a crisis of self-confidence that she began referring to as "my coma." The only other skaters mentioned as serious contenders were China's Chen Lu, who had won in 1995 but arrived in such poor condition—she'd missed four months of training because of a foot injury—that she failed to qualify for the free-skating program, and Bobek, the bronze medalist at the U.S. nationals.
Fassi's death hit Bobek hard. "He always cared," she said haltingly a few hours after hearing the news, her eyes puffy and red behind a pair of dark glasses. "He took the place of a father for me. He was always there for me. From what I understand, one of Carlo's last words to Christa was to please be with me for the competition."
Bobek, whose real father left home when she was a toddler, got all of three hours sleep before the short program on Friday afternoon. She was an emotional tinderbox when she stepped onto the ice. "My warm-up felt great, but right before I did the program, I looked at Christa and began crying," she said afterward. "I know how hard it was on her, but it meant so much to have her with me."
The crowd groaned as Bobek stumbled out of the triple Lutz on the front end of her combination jump and then fell outright on her triple toe loop. The judges had no recourse but to place her eighth. Emotionally drained, she eventually fell to 13th after struggling through her long program, dropping to her knees in prayer at its conclusion. It was the most charged moment of the week.
Kwan also missed the combination jump in her short program, stepping out of her triple Lutz, and placed fourth. Lipinski, as usual, was perfect, and the judges correctly put her first. That meant that even if Kwan were to beat her in the long program, Lipinski could still become the youngest world champion ever by finishing second. (When she won the first of her 10 world titles, in 1927, the legendary Sonja Henie was a month older than Lipinski is now.)
"In the car on the way back from the arena after the short program, Michelle was very angry, in tears, saying terrible things about how stupid she was to miss that jump," Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, would say when the competition was over on Saturday night. "Suddenly she stopped short. 'Why am I doing this to myself?' she said. 'Scott Hamilton's fighting for his life.' She realized that winning this world championship wasn't life or death. She used to see Carlo at the rink every day. I reminded her of that conversation before she went out for her long program."
Kwan, at that point, had little to lose. Lipinski, skating before her, had already earned another standing ovation by landing all seven of her triple jumps, plus two double Axels that had so little elevation that "you couldn't have put a piece of paper under them," in the words of one rival coach. Because of Lipinski's size and youth, it is now fashionable to speak of her accomplishments snippily, as if being 14 gives her an unfair advantage that the other skaters never enjoyed. The fact is, Lipinski has musicality and poise that are far beyond her years, and crumbling under pressure is not reserved for those who have reached puberty. Richard Callaghan, Lipinski's coach, virtually had to push her onto the ice the first time she appeared at practice after winning the U.S. nationals. She has nerves just like everyone else, but she has controlled them while spinning in the storm of her precocity. Callaghan acknowledges that he'll have to change Lipinski's double Axel technique—she doesn't follow through with her right leg, as she should to give the jump lift—but she is otherwise the complete skating package, if a diminutive one, and a pleasure to watch.
At her best, though, Kwan is still the top female skater in the world, as she proved in her long program. "Today I got my act back together," she said after landing six of the seven triple jumps she had planned—she doubled her final Lutz—and showing a presence on the ice more compelling than that of any of her competitors. "I told myself, We have to put this in perspective. Let's just go out and have fun."
In a split decision Kwan won the long program, but Lipinski took home the world title—perhaps a mixed blessing for Lipinski, given the difficulty of winning back-to-back crowns and the pressures she will now face as next year's Olympics approach. Asked about the future of their rivalry, Kwan laughed and said, "I don't know how long she plans to keep skating, but for the next 25 years, I'll be there. Always."
That may have been the best news out of Lausanne all week.