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SPORTS EXTRA: U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS

A Golden Moment, a Golden Future

Tara Lipinski, With Eyes on a Career in Acting, Is Enjoying Her Life After Olympics

January 07, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tara Lipinski knows exactly how the competitors at this week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships feel as they await the moment when they put their dreams on the line and vie for a national title, as well as a berth on the Olympic team for the Salt Lake City Games.

"Nervous. Big time nervous," she said. "It's so frustrating because you want it so bad and you know what you have to do to win, and time passes so slowly.

"I feel blessed that I did it and accomplished what I wanted to do."

And even more blessed that she's not doing it again.

Four years after she followed a runner-up finish at the 1998 U.S. championships by upsetting Michelle Kwan and winning the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics, Lipinski is coping with a hip problem that requires daily therapy and constant monitoring. Doctors who performed a 31/2-hour operation to remove torn cartilage overgrowing the bone of her right hip found the 19-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas, also had developed arthritis from the years of strain and pounding that led to her golden moment.

"It's from so much jumping," said Lipinski, who experienced mild pain at Nagano and was later mistakenly told she had a back injury that would ease if she strengthened her muscles. "It's called hip dysplasia, from all the triple-triples I was doing on my right side. I probably would have been fine after surgery, but because I had skated with it for four years and was misdiagnosed, there was some cartilage damage....

"I trained very hard and needed to be able to do a triple loop-triple loop [to get high technical marks]. It was worth it, and I'm glad I did it."

More than 15 months after her surgery, Lipinski is touring with Stars on Ice but still can't do all the triple jumps she used to reel off with such youthful abandon and apparent ease. When she carried the Olympic torch in downtown Houston a few weeks ago, she walked her three-block leg instead of jogging or running, although she was so thrilled she probably didn't feel her feet touch the ground at all.

"That was pretty cool," she said, "especially in my hometown. I'm patriotic and I loved doing it."

Her patriotism had been heightened by a visit to the site of the World Trade Center, a tragedy that hit her hard because she spent last summer living in Manhattan and thoroughly enjoyed the city's rhythm. In tribute to the Sept. 11 victims and their families, she performs a routine in the show to selections of patriotic music.

"My mom, when she was my age, used to work near there," Lipinski said of the devastated area, "and my grandfather was a fireman. It really made me realize how fragile everybody and everything is. It's kind of emotional, and on behalf of everybody, I'm trying to say we should have faith."

In her new world of shows, pro-am competitions and made-for-TV events that stress entertaining audiences instead of impressing judges, Lipinski can draw on emotion and finesse and be a winning performer without performing six or seven triple jumps in her routines. Unlike Olympic-eligible skating, in which Kwan, Sarah Hughes, Sasha Cohen and Angela Nikodinov push each other to ever higher levels of technical difficulty, Lipinski can get by for now on charm, sass and the few triple jumps that don't hurt her hip, the triple toe loop and triple salchow.

She has also been honing her artistry with choreographer Lori Nichol, who designed some of Kwan's most memorable programs and still works with U.S. men's champion Tim Goebel and world pairs champions Jamie Sale and David Pelletier.

"This is the first year I ever got to work with someone," she said. "Usually, I got a program and that was it. She's really helped me get an edge."

No one will complain if she doesn't do a triple loop because her hip is too sore. For that matter, if her hip hurts too much to skate, she can take a day off.

She couldn't have done that if she had pursued a second consecutive gold medal and continued competing in Olympic-directed events such as the U.S. and World Championships. She was young enough to contemplate that possibility after Nagano, where she was the youngest Olympic champion ever at 15 years 8 months old. But ending a brilliant career in which she began the sport and reached its apex in a mere three years, she chose to give up her Olympic eligibility.

She has never looked back, satisfied knowing her performance at the Olympics was her best, a moment she might never have topped.

"I have not one ounce of regret," said Lipinski, who shares marquee billing in Stars on Ice with 1984 and 1988 gold medalist Katarina Witt, 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, 1998 men's gold medalist Ilia Kulik and four-time world champion Kurt Browning. The 61-city tour, which began late last month, will reach the Arrowhead Pond Jan. 19 and Staples Center Jan. 20.

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