LAUSANNE, Switzerland — She is 4 1/2 minutes away from becoming the youngest world champion in the history of figure skating, a daunting development Tara Lipinski was finding a little too close for comfort Friday.
Every time the subject was broached, which was often after her first-place short program at the World Figure Skating Championships, Lipinski squirmed in her chair, blurting out the same pat response she must have practiced nearly as often as her triple lutz.
"No, I'm not thinking about it at all.
"Tomorrow's another competition.
"I'm not going into it to win.
"If I thought I could win, there would be too much pressure, and I might lose my focus."
This is what happens when the dream, which has sustained Lipinski since she was 6, heads screeching toward reality. If she holds on to her lead through today's women's free skate program, she will become world champion at the callow age of 14 years 9 months 12 days.
Sonja Henie, the previous standard in figure skating precociousness, was 14 years 10 months 12 days when she won her first world title in 1927.
Lipinski's warp-speed ascension to the top rung of women's skating--she was 15th at last year's worlds, 23rd after the short program--borders on the eerie.
Five weeks ago, Michelle Kwan looked like a dynasty in the offing, seemingly untouchable from here to Nagano. One notch below was a veteran field consisting of 1995 world champion Chen Lu of China, three-time world silver medalist Surya Bonaly of France and two-time European champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia.
A plucky up-and-comer who might be ready to push for an Olympic medal by, say, 2002. In the 1996-97 U.S. Figure Skating Assn. media guide, eight skaters are profiled as contenders in a "World Ladies Outlook," including Tanja Szewczenko of Germany, Tonia Kwiatkowski of the United States and Midori Ito of Japan. No mention is made of Lipinski.
What has happened to the "World Ladies Outlook" in the last two months causes one to wonder if Lipinski has a voodoo doll or two in that stuffed-frog collection of hers.
At the U.S. championships last month in Nashville, the implacable Kwan fell twice during her long program, creating the daylight for Lipinski's national-championship run. Then Friday, Kwan two-footed a landing on a triple lutz, a jump Kwan says she never misses, and was dragged down by five technical-merit scores of 5.4, enabling Lipinski to hurtle past her again.
Kwan finished the day in fourth place, behind a woman who placed second at the French nationals, Vanessa Gusmeroli, and Russian Maria Butyrskaya.
Chen, bothered by a bad foot, skated a short program so inadequate that she failed to qualify for today's free skate--two years removed from her world championship.
Chen singled a triple lutz and a double axel and ended her program several long, awkward seconds after her music stopped. She received five technical marks below 4.0--including one abysmal grade of 3.0--and finished the day 25th of 30 skaters, missing the cut by one.
Bonaly, hampered by an Achilles' tendon injury, placed ninth at the European championship in January and did not receive an invitation to Lausanne. Slutskaya, who won that event, went splat on her first jump Friday, ending the short program in sixth place.
Another possible challenger to Lipinski was American teammate Nicole Bobek, a world bronze medalist in 1995, but Bobek skated Friday barely 24 hours after the death of her coach, Carlo Fassi, stricken by a heart attack Thursday.
Looking drained and distracted, Bobek stepped out of a triple lutz and put both hands on the ice while trying to land a triple toeloop, a performance that saddled her with eighth place.
"My warmup felt great and I was very strong," Bobek said, "but right before I did the program, I looked at Christa [Fassi's widow] and began crying. My mind was racing."
Christa took Fassi's customary position alongside the boards during Bobek's skate. "It meant so much to have Christa with me," Bobek said. "I know how hard it was on her, but it meant so much."
Kwan angrily trudged off the ice after her short program, refusing the traditional post-skate bouquet offered her by a flower girl.
"It makes me mad," Kwan said. "In warmups, I did a great lutz. I do it all the time in practice. . . . One thing I miss in that program, and it's the one thing that counted the most."
Frank Carroll, Kwan's coach, was at loss when asked about the mistake on the lutz.
"What can I say?" Carroll said. "You want an answer to something I don't understand myself. She skated great in practice all week. Mentally, she was prepared.
"I don't have an answer for you."
During a short program that was more klutz than lutz, with more bodies strewn across the ice than at a typical King game, Lipinski needed to do little more than stay on her feet and skate figure-eights for 2 1/2 minutes. But she went above and beyond the call, effortlessly landing both of her triple jumps and both double jumps.
Now she is set up, 4 1/2 minutes from history. Lipinski, though, would rather not think about it, or talk about it, not while a remaining option is to skate it.
Figure Skating Notes
The American ice dancing team of Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow finished in sixth place Friday, the United States' best showing at the world championships since 1990, when Susan Wynne and Joseph Druar placed fourth. The top three finishers from 1996 repeated, in the same order--Oksana Grishuk and Evgeny Platov (Russia) won the gold medal, Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsyannikov (Russia) the silver and Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz (Canada) the bronze. The United States' other ice dancing team, Eve Chalom and Mathew Gates, finished 17th.