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Lipinski deserves better treatment

Saturday, February 20, 1999

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Cheer loudly tomorrow afternoon if you're going to Discover Stars on Ice at the Civic Arena. Yell and clap for Tara Lipinski, who is celebrating an anniversary. A year ago today, she pulled off the best performance of her life in the biggest competition of her life and won an Olympic gold medal at age 15.

An incredible - and unexpected - accomplishment. Yet somehow, Lipinski hasn't received the respect she deserves.

Most people think Lipinski is, at best, the country's second-best female skater. She hasn't moved into the role of America's sweetheart - and all its accompanying endorsement deals and opportunities - that has traditionally gone to figure skating's gold medalist. Taking her place is silver-medalist Michelle Kwan, a reversal that doesn't quite make sense and certainly isn't fair.

Kwan is a graceful, beautiful skater. Her performances at last year's U.S. national championships, for which she received a record number of perfect scores, were sublime. In a sense, however, she set herself up for failure with those performances. How could anyone reproduce such perfection?

The pressure got to Kwan. At the Olympics, she sequestered herself at a hotel with her family and coaches. She missed the Opening Ceremonies, the Closing Ceremonies and everything in between, except for the competition. There she faltered slightly on the landing of a triple flip in her long program, and the resulting scores for technical merit gave Lipinski just enough room to grab the gold.

Lipinski - who embraced every aspect of the Olympics - took advantage. She skated a technically superior program (which included the competition's hardest combination jumps) and an artistically terrific one (although her scores weren't quite as high as Kwan's). Her exuberant run to center ice when she finished, beaming from ear to ear, was one of the highlights of the Olympics.

As was Kwan's class and grace in defeat.

But why did anyone have to choose? We admired Sammy Sosa for attributes similar to Kwan's in baseball's home run race, but we also revered Mark McGwire for actually breaking the record. Sosa never took away from McGwire; in fact, he enhanced McGwire's achievement and image.

Kwan, however, hasn't had that effect on Lipinski, especially within the skating bureaucracy. There she has - unintentionally - had the opposite effect.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association, which needed to nominate one of its athletes for the U.S. Olympic Committee's 1998 Female Athlete of the Year, picked Kwan. When the U.S. Olympic team went to the White House, Lipinski wasn't chosen to present President Clinton a team jacket. Kwan was.

Kwan didn't deserve either honor. Lipinski earned both.

That's not to take anything away from Kwan, who was even more graceful in defeat than she is on the ice. She behaved with dignity under incredibly difficult circumstances, something probably only a handful of athletes anywhere could muster.

But just as important to the suits and skirts in charge was the fact that Kwan decided to remain Olympic-eligible while Lipinski, having achieved everything she had always dreamed of, fled to the professional ranks, where the money isn't that much better but the skating is less grueling. Plus, Lipinski's parents and handlers aren't well-liked, either.

The skating community thinks Lipinski figured she probably couldn't beat Kwan again and chickened out.

The officials also didn't appreciate that Lipinski skipped last year's world championships. If Tonia Kwiatkowski, who finished fourth at nationals, hadn't finished sixth at worlds, the United States would have lost one of its three berths in the world championships. Considering Lipinski got her first significant international exposure as the third member of the U.S. women's team for the 1996 world championships, they thought she was ungrateful.

It's not fair to blame Lipinski. Skating is an individual sport, not a team one. And so what if she did conclude that by continuing to compete with Kwan she would always lose? (It's not clear that she would have; Lipinski beat Kwan at both the 1997 national and world championships.) It doesn't matter, because Lipinski won the most important competition.

Sure, it would be great if Lipinski had stayed Olympic-eligible. Perhaps she and Kwan would have evolved into a great rivalry, each pushing the other to bigger jumps and more stylish programs. But considering Kwan is already being asked - at 18!- if she is getting too old to compete with the younger skaters, perhaps not.

Sports fans - and bureaucrats - should be thrilled with excellence in any form. Some athletes persevere for years, wowing us with their long-standing commitment and dedication. Like Kwan. Others sweep upon us like a shooting star, astonishing us with their brilliance, then disappear. Like Lipinski.

In baseball, there was room for two great athletes at the top. Too bad there isn't in skating.


Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com.



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