What comfort; how downright nifty it is to know that America's Next Sweetheart is waiting in the wings, ready to make her move. Lord knows, the life of sports sweethearts seems all too short: They wheel across the landscape of our fancy for brief, glittering moments and then they go off to where we see them in an altered perspective. They go off to the pros, to endless television specials, to commercials, to the side panels of Wheaties boxes and the labels of soup cans. Some of them, alas, go to fat and we all sigh in sympathy.
But here she is now, Miss U.S. Figure Skating for 1985 and beyond, polished and trained to a fare-thee-well. What's more, she's just the proper size and shape for the role, and by chance and not design, even her name—Tiffany—is right, catching the light to remind us of gems. Last name: Chin. She's Chinese-American, 17 years old and a wandlike 99 pounds, at 5'1". Her skating style is quicksilver, a blend of illusion and power. Given these factors, skating fans sometimes get giddy and call her a china doll—then pause in embarrassment at the racial labeling.
"I'm used to that," Tiffany says, with the faintest hint of a shrug. "It's been this way, all that china doll stuff, since I was super small. You learn to just accept it and find strength in your own culture. I'm surprised at how many people try to deny what they really are."
Tiffany knows what she is, all right: She's the heiress to the national figure skating stage, now that her teammates from the 1984 Olympics, Scotty Hamilton, Rosalynn Sumners, Elaine Zayak and Peter and Kitty Carruthers have all double-Lutzed off into ice-show careers. Just a year ago the U.S. was a fearsome international skating power, with three women, two men, two pairs and two dance teams ranked in the world's top six. Now it's pretty much down to—or up to—Tiffany to carry on.
The irony is that Tiffany would have crushed the other U.S. women anyway, had they been unwise enough to stick around for this season, because she has been coming on like a small, sequined steamroller. She was 13 when she won the 1981 junior world championship at Ontario, one of the youngest U.S. girls to take that title. In the 1982 U.S. championships she placed fifth; it was her first time out among senior women. By 1983, she had moved up to third in the U.S. and ninth in the world—and at the '84 nationals last January in Salt Lake City she won the silver medal behind Sumners and ahead of Zayak. Fourth after the compulsory figures, Tiffany won both the two-minute short program and the finals to become, no matter what color her medal, the best female freestyle skater in the land. At Sarajevo she was the youngest member of the U.S. Winter Olympic team.
"And the nice thing about Sarajevo," she says, "was that most of the pressure was on Sumners." As most everybody recalls, Sumners buckled, finishing second to East Germany's Katarina Witt, 18, with the Soviet Union's Kira Ivanova winning the bronze. Amid all the hoo-ha at the time, perhaps not too many folks noticed that Tiffany had scrambled from a dismal 12th in school figures to place second in the short program and finally finish fourth overall. Zayak landed way back in sixth.
"What's really strange now," says Tiffany, "is to be the only one left. I mean, suddenly I'm not the underdog. Which really leaves me with only one little problem." And she grins, flashing perfect teeth now that her braces have been taken off. "Just being good is not good enough anymore."
It all started with the great garage sale steal: two pairs of tiny ice skates for $1 each. Everybody knows you can't pass up a deal like that, so Marjorie Chin brought them home. It's that sort of thing, the offhand, innocent gesture, that gets legends going.
"Very first thing I did," says Tiffany, "was to step out onto the ice and go splat! Well, what we didn't know was that they were actually toy skates, not real, with thin aluminum blades that bent."
This was in San Diego in 1975. Tiffany was eight, her sister Tammy was six, and Mom was pregnant with Michael, who is now nine. The outcome was that Tiffany decided on the spot, which was roughly the seat of her pants, that she wanted to go on skating. Tammy wasn't so sure; indeed, after a few more sessions she was positive. So the family bought real skates for Tiffany ($7.50 at Sears), and a baby grand piano and lessons for Tammy.