Of course she slept with her gold medal. It was something Tara Lipinski had always promised herself she'd do, the final dream in her dream-come-true Olympics. She crawled into bed at 4 a.m. at the athletes' village with it hanging around her neck and dropped into a deep slumber while one of her coaches, Megan Faulkner, stayed bedside for an hour curling Lipinski's hair. In just a few hours the postvictory interview whirlwind would begin, and Lipinski would have to be properly coiffed. "Roll over, Tara," whispered Faulkner, who'd coached the 15-year-old since she was nine. "I have to do the other side."
Complying, the youngest Winter Olympic individual gold medalist ever—a title formerly held by Sonja Henie—murmured that all she wanted to do was go back to sleep.
And of course when she awoke four hours later, Lipinski's first conscious act was to reach down and "pinch" the medal, which was heavier than she'd imagined, a rising sun depicted on one side, the mountains of Nagano on the other. "Just to be sure it wasn't a dream," she later said, "and that it's still going on. These are the best days of my life."
Days so preposterously happy that Lipinski is certain they could have occurred only with the blessing of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the saint pictured on the locket she wears around her neck. "Thank you, Saint Thérèse," Lipinski said in the kiss and cry area, eyes shining, after skating her short program perfectly.
It wasn't just thanks for her flawless performance. Everything about the previous three weeks had been blissful, a joyous odyssey that began the day she left for Nagano with her parents, Jack and Pat. Sociable and fun-loving, Lipinski, an only child who's been to Disney World 14 times, immersed herself in the Olympic experience. (It is her nature. She once spent an entire day riding Splash Mountain.) From the beginning she took pains to commit to memory all the little details that would stay with her the rest of her life. Arriving by bus with her teammates at the athletes' village. Seeing her room for the first time. Unpacking. Taking her first tour of the pasta bar in the cafeteria. She remembers the first time she walked into the White Ring, Nagano's figure skating venue—"It was gorgeous," she says. She savors the memory of marching in the opening ceremonies, posing cheerfully with the 516-pound sumo wrestler Akebono. Of being congratulated by Wayne Gretzky and getting his autograph. Of breakfasting with the U.S. women's hockey team. "If I don't get an Olympic medal, what am I left with?" she asked a friend. "I want my Olympic memories. This is my chance to have fun."
Her coach, Richard Callaghan, was all for it. "I knew she was organized enough to go to bed on time, get up on time and not miss the bus to practice," he said. "Tara has her day structured so she's a giddy teenager between these hours and a really hard worker between these hours."
The pressure, throughout her stay, was off. Despite the fact that Lipinski is the current world champion and that 15 of the 18 women who'd held that title in an Olympic year had won the gold, she was a clear underdog to her 17-year-old teammate, Michelle Kwan. Both times they'd faced each other this season, Kwan had easily bested Lipinski, most recently at the U.S. nationals in January, when Lipinski fell and Kwan was awarded 15 perfect marks. The judges loved Kwan's artistry, and while Lipinski's programs were more difficult technically, few experts believed she could win unless Kwan took a tumble or two. "My biggest challenge was getting everyone to believe I had a chance," Lipinski said.
Kwan's biggest challenge was surviving the pressure of being the gold medal favorite, a weight she's carried since winning her first world championship in 1996. Kwan didn't arrive in Nagano until three days after the opening ceremonies, choosing to stay in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., where she trains, so she could continue treatments for the stress fracture of the second toe of her left foot, which she suffered in November. Instead of rooming with her teammates at the village, Kwan stayed in a hotel with her parents, Danny and Estella. She practiced, ate, slept, did a little sightseeing and watched a lot of movies in her hotel room: Titanic, Seven Years in Tibet, Air Force One. She could have been almost anywhere.
While Lipinski chatted with the media every day, even stopping off at the press center to answer her E-mail, Kwan remained largely secluded, granting only one interview that wasn't mandatory and attending no Olympic events. It was clear she was in Nagano for one reason: To win the gold medal. "I told her, you came here with a job to do, for yourself and for your country" Danny Kwan said the day after his daughter won the short program. "You didn't come for fun. If you concentrate on social life, you're setting yourself up for a problem. You don't want to embarrass yourself in front of your country."
It wasn't the first time Michelle had heard those words, Danny acknowledged. Every time she put on a uniform with USA on the front, she could expect a similar lecture. It's a lot to put on a young lady—which may be why Kwan often seems to be 17 going on 40—but she's been able to handle the pressure. Yet pressure is the enemy of art, Kwan's trump card. In subtle but telling ways, the pressure showed up in her skating.