Tara Lipinski was a real threat to any Michelle Kwan fan during the fall of '97 and winter of '98. With an injury to Kwan, the drama heightened as the pendulum swung back and forth between the two American teenagers.
It is important to note that prior to Tara winning the Olympic Gold Medal, every American who won the Olympics had first won the National Championships that season. Since Tara, no American who has won the Olympics has won the Nationals.
The '97-'98 season was a roller coaster for Tara Lipinski, as she was enmeshed in one of sport's greatest rivalries. It is something that certainly isn't lost on her. For many who watched, it remains the golden era of figure skating.
As usual, while Tara describes the ride of her life, we can only shake our heads and say, 'Poor Pat Lipinski.'
AJ: Winning a major title is often a turning point for many skaters. There are some who use it as a springboard, but many are never able to do as well ever again. How were you able to handle the pressure?
TL: There is definitely a fine line with handling pressure and realizing that a title is at your fingertips. Luckily, I had a very good circle around me. I am also superstitious. I never talked about placements ever. My parents didn’t discuss placements. My coaches and I never discussed that I could win the Olympics. We knew there was a chance, but we never focused on the placement.
AJ: Many Olympians describe the Olympic season as being completely different from every other year. How did you deal with the pressure and when did it really begin?
TL: I didn’t really feel the pressure as much on tour because I was enjoying just having won Worlds. It was in the back of my mind that the Olympics were coming, but the pressure didn’t really begin until I went right back to training from tour. I never took a vacation. I never took more than four days off my entire career and those four days were because I was injured. The Olympic year is so different and everything just feels differently. I was able to deal with it better on the ice, but you feel it when you’re at the mall. There would be days where my mom would ask me to take the laundry down and I’d cry about doing the laundry because it was my way of releasing the stress. I'm kidding about the laundry, but you do need a way to release it.
AJ: Did you feel your hip injury during the Olympic season? Was it torn at that point?
TL: I didn’t feel it in my hip at that time, I felt it in my back and thought I had a back injury. I had MRIs and was misdiagnosed so many times. I didn’t tear it until four or five months after the Olympics when I was doing a triple flip at Sky Rink. I felt a pop. The doctor told me that it was just a little tear and that I could be right back on the ice in a few days. The tour needed me to skate, so I did.
AJ: You and Michelle began the Olympic season by going head-to-head, which is something that just isn’t done anymore. Were you devastated not to win Skate America?
TL: I really wish skaters would go head-to-head again. I don’t think I was completely devastated. The Grand Prix is about getting the kinks out and I allowed myself some space because I didn’t need to win that event. I was skating so well before that competition and was so upset about missing my lutz. I always needed to skate cleanly. I never understand skaters who make multiple mistakes. If I made a mistake, I wasn’t going to make another. My parents and coaches would have to pull me off the ice if I had multiple falls in a program. I missed that lutz and wasn’t going to miss anything else in the program.
AJ: Your short program dress was blasted by sports columnists at Skate America that year. Were you aware of what was being said?
TL: I’d like to say that I had a thick skin at that time, but I really didn’t as much as I do now. Someone had told me that my Little Women dress made me look fat and I hated wearing it after that. I was stubborn about my music and costumes. The dresses had to be light or else I couldn’t jump. Jef Billings made me a beautiful dress for My Fair Lady, but there were too many sequins on it and I couldn’t jump. If I were competing now, I’d be very involved with the designs because I love fashion. I basically just oversaw the dresses back then but didn’t have too much input.
AJ: You lost Trophy Lalique to Laetitia Hubert in the fall of ’97…
TL: If there is one thing that gets to me, it is that I don’t have one of those beautiful trophies to put in my house. It is the one event with a really gorgeous prize to put on display. I lost at Lalique two years in a row. I hate Lalique. I was really sick at that event and probably shouldn’t have even skated my long program. I was getting so mad because I was ready for the competition.
AJ: You skated [perhaps] your best competition of the season at the Champion Series Final. Were you on a mission?
TL: I was so ready for that event, because I had started to doubt myself. I knew I had to fix how things were going. That was a difficult time for me. Sometimes you really need that extra push. Tanja [Szewczenko] skated right before me and ended her program screaming and pulling what I did a few months later. The competition was in Germany and she had come back from an unbelievable illness. It felt like it took so long for the ice to be cleaned up and I was thinking, ‘this is not good.’ Then, it fueled me to go out and give my best long. It was such a great event for me.
AJ: Going into the ’98 Nationals as the defending champion, most expected you to win given that Michelle Kwan had been off the ice with a fractured toe. Were you feeling confident?
TL: I felt great going into ’98 Nationals. I was definitely scared because I was so concerned with making the Olympic Team and I knew I was competing against such an amazing skater. It was around that time that the media really blew up the rivalry between Michelle and I. It was a unique situation where she came onto the scene at the Olympic Festival one year and I came on the next. We both kept progressing and stayed at the top, where usually someone will grow or get injured.
AJ: Were you aware that you were being painted as the villain of skating?
TL: I was aware of the scrutiny, but there is only so much you can do. To be honest, we both had flutzes; mine was really bad. It had actually improved a lot from when I was 13 to when I was 15, but there was only so much I could do. Michelle’s improved a ton also. I was never going to have one of those deep Russian lutzes, but I think that mine could’ve gotten stronger had I kept competing. My parents also had a bad ‘rep’ in skating, but I was the one who wanted to skate and wanted to win. They tried to be supportive and handle it, but my mom was more nervous than I was. My parents always made sure that I had straight As in school if I wanted to have the life I had. There are a lot of other girls at the rink who don’t focus on school at all.
AJ: How were the practices at ’98 Nationals? There are stories of everyone being on fire that week.
TL: Everyone was amazing all week. I remember talking to my coaches about how good Nicole [Bobek] looked. I was skating so well and Michelle [Kwan] looked strong. It was a surreal time. Any time we were on the ice together, it was chaos like we were at a Britney Spears concert.
AJ: Had you had any problems with your triple flip before the short program?
TL: The triple flip was a complete fluke in the short program. I know myself and I was shocked. I felt good to go before the competition. My[triple] lutz felt so good and beautiful. When I went to toe-in for the [triple] flip, my ankle buckled and dropped down. I didn’t get any height. You can see it on the video. I was shocked.
[Editor’s confession- the day after the short program was Christmas for Aunt Joyce, who may have been caught watching that triple flip on repeat.]
AJ: This is skating and you were the reigning World Champion and just won the Champion Series Final. Were you really worried that they’d keep you off of the Olympic Team?
TL: All I cared about was making the Olympic Team at that point. I didn’t even think that they’d put me on the team, which maybe they would’ve, but it was never brought up. I was off the team at that point. It was awful. Angela Nikodinov and I were really close and always hung out at the hotel at competitions. We had a sleepover before the long program and I remember the newspaper being slipped under the door with the photo of me in that awful fall position. It was not good. I was in my hometown and my entire family came to watch. It was a dark time.
AJ: You had two days between the short and long programs. How were your practices?
TL: My practices were not great. I was so nervous. Usually, if I messed up, I’d come back stronger. My long program was shaky because I was I petrified about not making the team. I believe my peaking was on track and the mistake was just a fluke, but the flip became a huge issue for about a month after Nationals. I finally felt better about a week before the Olympics and then I couldn’t wait to get to the Olympics.
AJ: What was it like practicing at the Olympic Games with the media there filming every practice?
TL: I loved when the media was at practice. I tended to be really consistent in practice, so I loved to go out and have a good time showing off. I was doing triple lutz+triple loop in Nagano. Then I went to Osaka and forgot how to skate. I had my freak out there. I was in bliss at the Olympics. It was the best three weeks of my life. I was in the sewing room making pillows and having the best time. Everyone around me thought I was doing too much and that they should take me out of there. I said ‘don’t do it.’
AJ: How long were you in Osaka for?
TL: I was in Osaka for a few days and came back about five days before the competition. I was so stressed in Osaka and my triple flips were singles. My parents and I were staying in this little Japanese room with Craig [Maurizi] and he’d be begging my mom to do something to get me in better spirits. Then, I got back to the Olympics and could do everything again.
AJ: What was it like watching Todd [Eldredge] compete and just miss the podium? Did it make you nervous for the competition?
TL: It was hard watching Todd because we were so close. He made mistakes in his program and I remember thinking, ‘this isn’t supposed to happen, he never makes mistakes.’ It was a reality shock that everything could be over in a second.
AJ: You stood in second place after the short program. Did that anger you and fire you up for the long program?
TL: I was so happy after the short because I landed my triple flip that had been a problem for a month. Once I landed it, my face completely changed and everything felt back to normal. My confidence was back. I really thought I’d miss it again.
AJ: What was the day of the long program like?
TL: It was one day that definitely didn’t match the norm. I slept well like I always do and practiced well, but I was so nervous. I always ate spaghetti with my parents before every competition, but I couldn’t eat anything. I told them that I was quitting and not going out there. Then, I did my usual walk back to their room and told them ‘I’m going to do it,’ but it felt forced.
AJ: How were you handling the stress as you waited to compete?
TL: I had a great warm up, but I was skating fifth. I hated skating so late in the group. Skating in the second spot would’ve been perfect, even skating first [after the warm up] would’ve been fine. I left my skates on because I like for my laces to feel the same. We went to the back rink so we couldn’t hear anything, but for some reason the speaker was on and I heard Michelle’s marks. I remember thinking ‘they didn’t leave any room’ and I had a freak out backstage and Megan [Faulker] who is a second mom to me had to calm me down.
AJ: Were you aware that Surya Bonaly had done a back flip right before you went on the ice?
TL: I don’t remember knowing that at all. I had had a brief downer backstage and was working myself back up to be ready.
AJ: What was the inner panic level like as you took the ice?
TL: It was a good 11 ½ before the long program. It was off the charts. My legs were shaking in the opening pose and I got a little nauseous. I had a moment where I skated past the judges before my double axel and told my brain to knock it off. Then I worried about the [triple] flip and wound up doing one of the best triple flips of my life. I zoned out until the slow section when I began to freak out before the triple loop-triple loop. Once I landed that, I calmed down until my last jump. My triple toe was way too big. I usually like to just skim the toe loop, but I got more height than usual and knew I had to get off the ice for the salchow and hung on.
AJ: You had issues finishing after the music that season. Was that due to the set-up before the triple toe-half loop-triple salchow?
TL: I was a mess with my spins. I’d get excited and add stars or illusions after my combination. Megan [Faulkner] was always worried that I’d forget to count and fail to go around five times on my camel spin.
AJ: Discuss the scream… Are you normally a yeller in life?
TL: It was just a release. I couldn’t believe that I had trained my entire life for it and that I had actually done it. The entire moment was surreal and I didn’t think about the marks until Megan reminded me. I don’t even remember being in the Kiss and Cry. The scream was not normal for me. Oh man, it just keeps on going. I was in shock for the next six months.