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TAKING IT ON THE CHIN : In Skating, There's Some Things That You Don't Figure On

January 25, 1988|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

As she sat in the darkened dining room of her well-appointed home, in an upper middle-class neighborhood of Toluca Lake, Marjorie Chin gave in to her memories, which, lately, have caused her nothing but pain. She watched her daughter, Tiffany, glide effortlessly across the ice on the big-screen television, the elegant images from years past captured forever by a home video camera. Every so often, Marjorie's husband, Ed, came into the room to change the cassette. But not to watch. That always has been her role, to watch Tiffany. Marjorie often wonders whether it did her or Tiffany any good.

There was Tiffany at 9, one year after Marjorie bought her a pair of skates for $1 at a San Diego garage sale and already doing a camel spin that would make Dorothy Hamill look twice. There was Tiffany at 12, having advanced to her first junior nationals, smiling through her braces and more precocious than ever.

"That was the year everyone said she had gone too far, advanced too fast," Marjorie said. "But she wasn't fazed at all. One day, Carlo Fassi called and said he wanted her to be his student. He promised us everything."

Fassi, one of the world's most respected coaches, made similar calls in the past to Peggy Fleming, Hamill, Robin Cousins and John Curry, telling them they could have it all if they trained with him in Colorado Springs, Colo. All became Olympic champions.

"We didn't go," Marjorie said. If she regrets the decision, there was no trace of it in her voice.

There was Tiffany at 13, winning the world junior championship. There was Tiffany at 15, performing the most demanding triple jump, a triple axel. No other woman could do one at the time. On one of the cassettes, recorded during a practice in a near-empty rink, one person could be heard applauding Tiffany's triple axel. It was Fleming. In figure skating, that is the equivalent of being knighted by the queen.

"Tiffany was such a happy girl," Marjorie said.

There was Tiffany at 16, still ahead of schedule, finishing second to Rosalynn Sumners in the national championships and earning a berth in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. "Sumners Wins, but Future Belongs to Chin," read the headline in The Times. There was Tiffany in Sarajevo, finishing fourth but serving notice. "For Tiffany Chin, Life is Sweet--and 1988 Is Bright," read another headline.

The headlines never again were so glowing. Tiffany won the national championship in 1985, but she skated less skillfully and with less flair than the year before. There was no way to know it then, but she never again would be as good as in 1984. In 1986, she was third in the nationals, and although she finished third in the world for the second straight year, it was apparent the judges no longer were enamored of her. Last year, she was fourth in the nationals and did not earn a berth in the world championships.

Confronted with the probability that she would not make the U.S. team for the Winter Olympics next month in Calgary, Canada, Tiffany, 20, announced her retirement in November from competitive skating and signed a seven-figure contract with an ice show.

Ed Chin entered the room to insert another cassette, but Marjorie waved him away. "I don't want to see any more," she said. "Over the years, all the girls wash out. I didn't know mine was going to, too. If we hadn't ruined her, the gold medal would have been hers."

Frank Carroll was polite but firm in refusing to answer questions about Tiffany. He was her coach early in her career at the Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank and again at the end, the middle having been entrusted to others.

"Oh God, I can't comment about Tiffany's demise in skating," he said from his weekend home in Palm Springs. "A lot of it would be very painful to Tiffany if it came out. The last thing I want to do is cause her more pain. I love Tiffany. She's a wonderful kid. But I think she's spent a lot of time being depressed and very unhappy. She's the only one who knows the truth."

Yes, Tiffany said when Carroll's remarks were repeated to her, she was depressed at times.

"It wasn't only when I was skating bad," she said. "Sometimes it was when I was skating well, too. It's not always such a happy sport. You always try to make everything so pretty and graceful and easy and joyful, and a lot of times it's not."

But no, Tiffany said, she does not know the truth--not one single, solitary truth. She does not know why East Germany's Katarina Witt or the United States' Debi Thomas or some other ice princess will wear the gold medal in Calgary instead of her. But she has theories, and if you took a multiple choice test and answered "all of the above," you would not be too far off.

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