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Youngest national champion looks at success with a veteran’s maturity

March 14, 1997

Look closely at Tara Lipinski and you’ll see a tiny pair of golden skates on a delicate gold chain, a pretty necklace any teen-ager who loves skating would wear.

Lipinski, of course, isn’t like any other 14-year-old and the necklace isn’t just jewelry. It’s the lucky charm for the youngest national champion in U.S. history, a constant reminder of the people she loves and the part they’ve played in her success.

``I always wear my necklace. (It’s something) that my relatives and friends have given me,″ she said. ``Everyone says I don’t have a social life, but I have my friends.″

Three months shy of her 15th birthday, Lipinski is the latest favorite in the pre-Olympic gold rush. She’s upset Michelle Kwan in back-to-back competitions, and is now the top skater heading into the world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. The weeklong contest begins Sunday.

Despite her age _ or maybe because of it _ Lipinski isn’t overly impressed with her success. After winning the national title and the Champions Series final, where she beat Kwan and two-time European champion Irina Slutskaya, all she wants from worlds is to improve on her 15th-place finish last year.

``I know that everyone’s going to be trying to skate their best because it’s worlds, so I’m not expecting to place or win,″ she said. ``If I’m better than 15th, I’ll be happy.″

That isn’t just talk. People have been expecting greatness from Lipinski since she was 12, when she became the youngest gold medalist at the U.S. Olympic Festival, and she’s almost bored now by the fascination with her success.

She doesn’t get caught up in the pressure that comes with winning, said her mother, Pat Lipinski. She just skates.

``She did her job and did what she wanted to do and she kind of leaves it at that,″ she said. ``She’s accomplished so much this year that I don’t care. Whatever comes, we’ll take it.″

Though Lipinski has always dreamed of skating in the Olympics, her time was expected to come at Salt Lake City in 2002, not at the Nagano Games next year. Nationals changed all that and the Champions Series final, her first significant international victory, confirmed it.

Kwan was supposed to be unbeatable, having won all but one competition dating back to 1995. But she had a miserable free skate at Nashville, Tenn., sprawling to the ice twice on jumps and looking shaky on several others. Lipinski, skating right after, was almost perfect.

She nailed seven triples, including a triple loop-triple loop combination that almost no one tries. She had the crowd on its feet long before the music stopped.

``It went so quick and it was so great,″ Lipinski said. ``It was just like a surprise.″

While it might have come sooner than expected, this was the type of success Lipinski hoped for when she began training with Richard Callaghan two years ago.

The coaching change came after she was upset in the U.S. junior nationals a few months after the Olympic Festival. Lipinski liked Callaghan’s discipline, and her parents liked the state-of-the art facilities at the Detroit Skating Club.

Lipinski also liked the idea of training with current world champion Todd Eldredge, whom she idolized so much she was scared to say hello to him at first.

``Not anymore,″ she says with a laugh. ``He always teases me.″

Training with Callaghan meant another move for Tara and her mother, and more time away from father Jack. The family has lived in separate cities since Tara was 11, when the Lipinskis decided she needed better coaching than she was getting in their hometown of Sugar Land, Texas.

Rather than let her live with some other family, like many skaters do, the Lipinskis decided Pat would go with their daughter, Jack would stay in Texas, visiting whenever he could.

``She’s my only child and I ... couldn’t, not with anybody on Earth, leave her,″ Pat Lipinski said. ``I was lucky, because my husband felt the same way I did. I didn’t have to choose.″

Jack Lipinski talks to his wife and daughter daily, and visits at least once a month, sometimes more, depending on where his business trips take him. And Pat and Tara spend every summer in Sugar Land, near Houston.

While the Lipinskis’ lives revolve around Tara’s skating, they insist it hasn’t been at the expense of her childhood. She spends four hours on the ice each weekday, and another two on Saturdays. She hasn’t gone to a regular school since she was in sixth grade, instead getting tutored for four hours a night at home.

But when skating and school are over, the Lipinskis say Tara is like any other 14-year-old. She and her best friend, fellow skater Erin Sutton, have sleep-overs every weekend, usually at Lipinski’s house.

She likes hanging out at the mall, shopping and people-watching. She also likes to bake _ chocolate cakes with chocolate icing are her favorite.

And she watches television. In fact, the best part of winning her national title might have been appearing in the same issue of People magazine as the cast of her favorite show, ``Party of Five.″

``It’s cool,″ she gushes.

While the family’s separation hasn’t been easy, moving to train with Callaghan put Tara’s career back on the fast track. She finished third at nationals last year, earning a place on the world team. Though she finished 15th overall, she was 11th in the free skate, a very respectable international debut.

Her biggest problem was that she was 13 _ and skated like it. A jumper, Lipinski scored well on the technical marks, but her presentation needed work.

At 4-foot-8 and 75 pounds, she looked elfin moving across a huge rink. She lacked the sophistication of Kwan _ who is only 16 _ and the older skaters.

So Callaghan brought in Marina Schaffer, a ballet teacher. She and Lipinski spend a few hours each week on the ice without skates, walking through her program.

Every gesture, every movement is practiced repeatedly until it is completely natural. Now when Lipinski skates, she looks serene, as if the program is part of her and she doesn’t even realize there are thousands watching.

``I don’t think she looked immature on the ice, and that’s what we were trying to accomplish,″ Callaghan said after she won her national title. ``I want her to somehow be a sophisticated 14-year-old.″

Lipinski’s climb to the top hasn’t been easy. She’s the first to admit there are rough days, and she and her mother miss Jack.

But she also doesn’t have any regrets.

``Just to love it, to be able to go out there and compete and to enjoy it at the same time is great,″ she said.

End Adv for weekend editions, March 15-16

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