Four Years ago Jack Lipinski's family left him for a gold medal. His wife, Pat, and his only child, Tara, then 11, went to Delaware for the summer to take figure skating lessons from a hot new coach, and they just never quite came back. Since then Pat and Tara have made what amounts to three trips around the world, become famous and moved again, this time to suburban Detroit, but Jack is still by himself, knocking around like a pinball in the family's 5,000-square-foot house in Sugar Land, Texas. He shuffles among the only three rooms he uses, dutifully calling his wife and daughter twice a day, sending out the checks, being the good dad.
He has law and engineering degrees and is vice president of refining for a Houston-based oil company, but he still had to refinance the house to pay for the condo outside Detroit and the coaches and the ballet teacher and the tutors and the trainers and the travel and the clothes. Pat and Tara are grateful, but they don't call him in Houston and ask him what he thinks about adding a triple toe loop or more sequins, or the competition in Munich. You ask longtime skating writers about Lipinski's father, and they say, "Are they together?" or "Whaddya mean, father?" You open Tara's autobiography and see the dedication to her mom: "You have...sacrificed so much.... Without [you], I know I couldn't have gone this far."
No mention of you-know-who.
He knows they love him, and he loves them, and to prove it, 40 Fridays a year he trudges onto a 5:30 p.m. flight from Houston to Detroit, lands at 9, rents a car and drives to the condo, where he spends as much of Sunday as he can with Tara, since it's her only day off from skating. They maybe take in a movie before he has to head to the airport by 4 p.m. to make the flight back to Houston, where he flops into bed by 11, ready to wake up the next day and start funding Operation Tara again.
But he doesn't complain and he doesn't regret and he doesn't even call it a sacrifice. He figures a certain fireman and seamstress from Bayonne, N.J., worked like dogs to get him his two degrees, and now it's his turn. "The hardest part is the loneliness," he says. "But thank god for phones." The phone bill is almost $1,000 a month, but sometimes the calls only make him lonelier. He and Pat had been together 27 years when she and Tara left. All of a sudden he's supposed to be happy with a cozy fiber-optic line? "We can't even talk about the loneliness," Pat says. "It only makes us sadder. He gave up his family for this. I'm not sure I could've." When Pat gets into this sort of mood, Tara will sense it and bounce into the kitchen, going, "Mom, how 'bout I make dinner tonight?"
Jack flies in for competitions whenever he can, and he found himself in Nagano with two wonderful weeks to spend with his daughter, except that she didn't have two weeks to spend with him. She was staying in the Olympic Village, its youngest citizen. You come nearly 7,000 miles to see your little girl only to find out she had already grown up.
At the Olympics a lot is made about what these tiny dancers give up—their youth, their innocence, their prom. But does anybody ever mention what the Jack Lipinskis give up?
After Tara almost knocked down the boards in Nagano last week with her will and nearly jumped out of the joint with the kind of single-mindedness family friends see in her father, the Lipinskis finally had that precious medal, fair and square, and were on their way to the doping control station to prove it. As usual Jack tailed along at the end of the entourage—escorts, officials, coaches, Tara and Pat. All of them were allowed in. Except one.
"It's O.K.," he said, "I'm her dad."
"Nai," said the Japanese guard.