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Saint inspires an Olympic champion

Sunday, February 11, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Figure skater Tara Lipinski always wears a gold medal.

Not the one she won at the 1998 Olympics, but a medal of St. Therese of Lisieux, which was given to her by the Rev. Vince Kolo, a Catholic priest from Pittsburgh.

Tara Lipinski (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Lipinski, who skates at 6 p.m. today with Target Stars On Ice at Mellon Arena, believes St. Therese has guided her life since 1994, when she first prayed to the saint known as the Little Flower.

"I know that, without her, I could never have done anything at the Olympics. Not that she made me win, but she gave me the faith to believe that there was someone who would keep me calm and help me through, no matter what happened," Lipinski said.

St. Therese's greatest desire was to lead others to faith in God. Lipinski believes that is what she has done for her.

At 15, Lipinski shattered a 70-year record to become the youngest Olympic skating champion. Her rise from Midwest Novice Champion in 1994 to Olympic gold in 1998 was equivalent to becoming MVP of the Super Bowl four years after winning a regional championship in Pop Warner football.

Now 18, Lipinski was born in Philadelphia, then moved to Texas. Her parents spent years apart so her mother could be with her for training in Delaware and Detroit. Her family is now reunited in Houston, where Lipinski likes to attend a weekly Mass for teen-agers.

The Lipinskis always went to church, but her mother, Pat, had lost her faith after a series of family tragedies. In 1994, Pat Lipinski was fed up with the physical and emotional demands figure skating made on her daughter and miserable at living apart from her husband. A friend persuaded her to pray for nine days to St. Therese.

Shortly afterward, the family went to Budapest, Hungary, for the Junior World Championship. It was so stressful that Pat Lipinski was ready to take Tara home to Texas and renounce skating. As the Lipinski parents argued, Jack Lipinski fled to the rickety hotel balcony. Pat Lipinski followed him, and was amazed to see a church with an image of St. Therese with roses cascading from her arms.

It seemed to be a sign that the saint whose prayers she had requested would carry her family through any hardships ahead.

Her daughter kept skating.

Petitioned the pope

St. Therese was born in 1873 and was considered a perfectionist who was given to temper tantrums. At 14, she was moved to commit her life to praying for others to love God. After the Carmelite superior and her bishop said she was too young to enter the convent, she appealed to the pope. With his permission, she became a nun at 15.

She practiced short, heartfelt prayers and her spirituality was based on doing ordinary deeds with extraordinary love.

Before Therese died of tuberculosis at 24, she wrote that she intended to spend eternity in heaven working for good on Earth. She would send "a shower of roses" as a sign of her activity. People soon reported that, when they prayed to her, they received roses.

Therese would have been 52 when she was declared a saint in 1925.

Lipinski "liked her because she didn't seem perfect, which makes you feel you have something in common with her," she said.

The skater, who was notoriously demanding of herself, understood Therese's battles with perfectionism. It was comforting to know that the saint could be "a little bratty," as Lipinski put it, and that long church services put her to sleep. Above all, she understood Therese's drive to achieve her goal at the age of 15.

"She was struggling to get into the convent kind of like I was struggling to be accepted, because I was too young," said Lipinski, who talked last week during an appearance in Cleveland.

Pat Lipinski knows it's odd to think that a saint would shower her daughter with roses. She has met dying children who need them more. She knows people who devoted their lives to St. Therese and never received a petal.

"Why would this saint waste her time making sure this little girl got a gold medal? I don't know," Pat Lipinski said. "Maybe it's because she wants her story told. Maybe it's because Tara can help bring today's teen-agers closer to God."

At a time when God seemed too large and intangible for the teen-age Lipinski to care about, St. Therese made sense. Lipinski learned to love God because she loved St. Therese's love for God. The roses led the way, she said.

Roses that people threw to her at competitions didn't count as signs, she said, because all elite skaters get them. But there were other roses, such as the two that a monk mailed to her in Detroit.

When Lipinski opened the envelope five days later on her way to the airport for the Olympics, the roses were fresh and undamaged.

"After a while it became really eerie, because it happens so much. Sometimes it takes something like that for you to believe. But, once you believe, you don't need signs like that any more," Lipinski said.

"When I pray, I don't ask for signs. I just know that she's there and that she's going to protect me and help me through everything."

Different gold medal

Lipinski said she has never prayed to win.

"I always prayed to skate my best and be happy. I prayed to feel confident and do what I had worked so hard all year to do."

At the Olympics, she thanked St. Therese on international television after she skated a strong short program.

She had been in Nagano, Japan, for three weeks, but had not received a single rose by the day of her long program. As she prayed to St. Therese before practice, a woman who handled fan mail gave her a package with no return address or note. Inside was a gold charm with an image of a pink rose.

Her coach held her statue of St. Therese while Lipinski took the ice.

"I remember being on the ice and feeling such a strong presence of her being there with me," she said.

"She was on my mind constantly. It kept my mind off of doubting myself or technical things."

Her famous screams of joy when the judges awarded her a narrow victory over the heavily favored Michelle Kwan represented more than the achievement of her dream. Now she could reunite her parents by turning professional.

That decision -- like her victory -- prompted second-guessing in the media and the skating community. But Lipinski has no regrets.

Not only are her parents back together but, "I love, love, love skating with Target Stars On Ice," she said.

Kolo, the Pittsburgh priest who has become close to Pat Lipinski, believes that those who have not stood in Lipinski's skates cannot judge her choices. She did what was best for her and for those she loved, he said.

Kolo's acquaintance with the Lipinskis began in 1998 when one of his friends mentioned hearing Lipinski thank St. Therese at the Olympics.

Kolo was only vaguely aware of who Lipinski was. He wasn't especially devoted to St. Therese, although his spiritual director was. Kolo never wrote to celebrities.

But something moved him to send her a gold St. Therese medal.

Her Little Way

At the time, all of her fan mail was supposed to be forwarded in cartons from her rink in Detroit to her home in Texas. But on a Detroit morning when Pat Lipinski had made a futile search for a gold St. Therese medal for herself, Lipinski happened to pick up the small package from Kolo that was lying on top of the other mail at the arena. When she brought it home and opened it, she was certain St. Therese had sent it for her mother.

Kolo soon received an autographed picture of Lipinski, along with a thoughtful letter from Pat Lipinski. It led to regular phone calls, said Kolo, who is an assistant at St. Paul in Butler.

A few months later, Lipinski "retired" her Olympic dress and St. Therese medal to an exhibit. But she refused to skate without a St. Therese medal and none were to be found in Houston. Pat Lipinski gave her the one that Kolo had sent, which she wears to this day.

As part of her effort to thank St. Therese, Lipinski established a playroom dedicated to St. Therese in the children's ward of a Detroit hospital. But last year Lipinski herself was hospitalized with a career-threatening hip injury.

It began before the Olympics, but had been misdiagnosed.

At a Stars On Ice rehearsal in September, she heard her hip "pop" as she launched into a jump. A specialist discovered badly torn cartilage and other damage, including early signs of arthritis. Lipinski was in surgery the next day, terrified that her career was over.

In recovery she asked her mother for a newspaper so she could do the crossword. A moment after receiving it she was jubilant. The definition for 12 down was "Saint known as the Little Flower."

Roses sent to the hospital would have meant nothing, but this was a unique sign. "And I was really needing her that day," Lipinski said.

Weeks of painful therapy began in a wheelchair. The first time she stepped onto the ice she could barely put weight on her leg.

"It's hard for an athlete, when you've been so active, not to be able to have control over your own body," she said.

But through it all, "St. Therese has been there with me."

Lipinski had just returned to Stars On Ice when she fell on her hip during shooting of a television special.

She jumped up and skated to prove that she could, but the pain was so severe she burst into tears. Her mother ran onto the ice. But fellow skater Kurt Browning was already calming Lipinski down, so Pat Lipinski returned to her seat.

At that moment, a man in the row behind her placed a dozen roses in Pat Lipinski's lap and said, "I thought this would be an appropriate time for these."

He disappeared before anyone thought to ask his name.

Because the roses have always appeared at her best and worst moments, Lipinski said she can't chalk it up to coincidence.

Each night before she performs, she prays to skate her best and kisses her statue of St. Therese. At competitions, she places the statue atop the boards.

"I think she's changed me as a person," Lipinski said. "She crosses my mind often. I think, what would she do? Her Little Way applies to everything in life."

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