Sunday, February 22, 1997
Tara finds joy at Olympics

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Tara Lipinski marched in the opening ceremonies beside fellow skater Todd Eldredge.
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NAGANO - The best thing about Tara Lipinski's Olympic experience is that it was so wide.

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She did not live the cloistered life so common among champion figure skaters. She insisted on behaving like a normal person instead of a pampered ice princess.

Lipinski lived, for the most part, in the Olympic Village. She marched in the Opening Ceremonies, and sat cheerfully in the cold. She met sumo wrestlers and shopkeepers, attended competitions and explored the town. If she had not won the gold medal, she would still have taken something from this trip.

''I think the best decision we made,'' said Pat Lipinski, Tara's mother, ''was to let her live in the village. We sat her down and told her that no matter what happened, she had to enjoy having been here.''

Too often in sports, an athlete develops tunnel vision before a big event and loses sight of the larger picture. Sometimes they concentrate so intensely on their competition that they crack. Whenever a football team shows up at the Super Bowl and declares they are ''focused'' on their ''mission,'' you suspect that they're obsessing, and you fear for their chances.

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Lipinski throws a bouquet into the crowd after her exhibition Sunday.
(AP photo)
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Same goes for figure skating. Carefully manipulated by heavy-handed handlers, Lipinski came of as a joyless drone at last month's U.S. Nationals. She suffered by comparison to the vivacious Michelle Kwan, and she fairly freaked out when she stumbled during her short program.

The two skaters' roles have since been reversed. So, too, have their results.

This time it was Kwan who seemed more sheltered and less spontaneous. Except for practices, she rarely ventured beyond her hotel out of concern for contracting the flu that has spread through the Olympic Village or being mobbed by autograph seekers. She washed her hands frequently for fear of germs, and her narrow diet was drawn up in part to prevent the possibility of food poisoning.

Inevitably, her precautions eventually extended to her skating. Skating before Lipinski in Friday's long program, Kwan seemed to be protecting a lead rather than pushing an envelope, relying on her artistry against Lipinski's superior technical program, and it may have cost her the gold medal.

''In my mind, I was thinking, 'Land every jump, don't make a mistake,' and maybe that's the wrong way to think,'' Kwan said Saturday. ''Maybe I should have just gone out there like I did every day and skate with my heart, let myself go.''

To suggest that Kwan's one wobbly landing Friday was attributable to anything except chance would be specious. Similarly, Lipinski's choice of living arrangements can not be credited for the success of her critical triple toe loop combination.

Still, there's something to be said for keeping pressure in its place, and not compounding it by concentrating on it. A source inside the United States Olympic Committee says Lipinski climbed out a bathroom window the other day to avoid a throng of reporters after practice. (Since I wasn't one of them, I'll give her credit for creativity.)

Before she competed Friday, Lipinski stood in line at a local photo booth and had her picture taken for a sheet of stickers. She attacked her nerves with activity, sending E-mail, wandering the athletes village, getting her mind off the four minutes that would shape her life.

Maybe it made a difference. Maybe not. Maybe, underneath all that makeup, Tara Lipinski is as fragile as any other 15-year-old. Maybe she is such a cold-blooded competitor that her environment is extraneous.

Maybe the answer is all of the above.

Different athletes respond to different stimuli before a competition. Some seek seclusion; others activity. No one way works for everyone.

The advantage of Tara Lipinski's way is that it affords a fuller Olympic experience. Who wants to travel halfway around the world to look at a hotel room?

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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