Figure skating shocker

Lipinski upsets Kwan! Skating expert Christine Brennan on what happened on the ice in Nagano.

By Jonathan Broder
Published February 21, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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In a stunning upset at the Nagano Olympic Games, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski, skating with a maturity and grace beyond her years, captured the gold medal in the women's figure skating competition, edging out her favored rival, fellow American Michelle Kwan, 17. Lipinski's exuberant performance Friday makes her the youngest Olympic figure skating champion ever, beating Sonja Henie's Olympic record by only 32 days.

Her margin of victory over Kwan was not quite as narrow. Kwan had finished first in the short program on Wednesday, with Lipinski in second place. On Friday, during the free skate, Kwan gave another strong performance, winning four near-perfect 5.9s for her artistry. But when Lipinski racked up the same marks for her artistry, plus six more 5.9s for technical merit, the crown was hers. Kwan, the favorite, won the silver medal, and Lu Chen of China won the bronze.

"There is nothing that could be better for me," Lipinski told reporters after crying for joy and dancing a jig when the numbers on the scoreboard signaled her victory. "Knowing against all odds, under all that pressure, you did it. I will always remember it."

Kwan was stoic about the upset. "I knew this competition was not a piece of cake," she told reporters. "I came out of the rink feeling like I had done my best, there is nothing more I could have done. I truly know that. It may not be the color medal I want, but I'll take it."

Among the thousands of journalists who witnessed the women's figure skating competition, perhaps no one was more surprised than veteran sportswriter Christine Brennan, an authority on the sport and author of "Edge of Glory: The Inside Story of the Quest for Figure Skating's Olympic Gold Medal." The book, which traces the daily lives of Lipinski, Kwan and other Olympic hopefuls over the past year and culminates with the figure skating event at Nagano, will be rushed into print by Scribners next month.

A stunned Brennan spoke to Salon from Nagano shortly after Lipinski's victory:

Everybody had Michelle Kwan as the gold medal favorite and Lipinski as the silver medalist. What happened?

We're still trying to figure it out. It's the biggest upset in the history of figure skating. We're all still in shock. We sure didn't see this coming. We all thought Michelle Kwan did what she needed to do. She was a little slow and deliberate. A little playing it safe, but that's understandable since she was the gold medal favorite. She just did her job.

Tara Lipinski came out and just grabbed those judges by the throat and said, "Hey, look at me!"

What did Tara Lipinski do that put her in front of Michelle Kwan?

What did she do? She just stole the evening. She got four 5.9s on the artistic part, which was surprising. This is an upset of immense proportions. We're still analyzing it. They both did seven triple jumps. It's not like one of them did fewer.

You have spoken in the past about the tremendous qualitative difference between Kwan and Lipinski, that Kwan was a much more mature skater than Lipinski.

I guess now you can call me your former figure skating expert ... Seriously, that difference was evident in the short program Wednesday. One Hungarian judge said he could have placed 12 people between Michelle and Tara. But something happened between Wednesday and Friday.

Was Lipinski's program suddenly more sophisticated than usual?

It's hard to say. Look, this is figure skating, and there's always going to be a lot of gray area. Tonight, we've got the biggest gray area ever. I wish I could give you answers. I really cannot say why, except that tonight, Michelle was a bit tentative. But when you watch the replays, I don't think you're going to see a really tentative performance. It was a very good performance that Michelle put out there. The judges left a little more room than I thought they would, and Tara just ran away with it. She filled the gap and did it, did everything she had to do and more. She stole the show. She won tonight. Tomorrow, if they put on their skates and went through their performances again, maybe Michelle would win.

Did Kwan make any mistakes?

No, she did not. As I said, the only mistake she might have made was in being tentative and cautious. She had a little trouble coming out of her landing on a triple flip, but Tara had a little trouble coming out of one of her triples. It was nothing that would have distinguished them. Again, we're talking about gray areas.

So were you surprised at the outcome?

Yes. Shocked. When I saw Tara skate, I still thought they would give it to Michelle and that Tara might be close behind. I did not think it would be the other way around. I love Michelle's skating; I like Tara's skating. I still think that Michelle, when she's on, is the better skater. Tonight, was Michelle the better skater? I don't know. It was that close. As a journalist judging the judges, I'm in shock. The judges have never done anything like this before.

Did you get a chance to talk to Kwan and Lipinski afterward? Did you get the sense that there is any personal animosity between them?

I did talk to them afterward, and not surprisingly, Tara is ecstatic. Michelle is just fine. She was a class act. She was surprisingly composed and together. I don't get the sense that Michelle feels any animosity toward Tara. Tara is not as deep as Michelle, she's not as inquisitive. Michelle is a gem. She's one of a kind. Tara is a fighter, she's a competitor, a feisty athlete out there. Michelle is a deep thinker. In reply to a question afterward, Tara said something like, "Michelle's skating is great," but Michelle looked right at Tara and said, "Tara, I like you." It brought down the house.

What does this 1-2 finish do for the sport of figure skating in the United States?

It shows that figure skating is a sport, just like any other, with upsets, surprises and disappointments. Anyone who said the result tonight was preordained is eating their words right now. Every sports writer who has blasted this sport has got to stop and say maybe this is a sport after all. At the moment that those marks went up for Tara Lipinski, the sport changed.

What happens now in the athletic rivalry between Kwan and Lipinski?

Michelle Kwan says she's coming back for the 2002 Olympics. This is going to be one hell of a rivalry if Tara stays in. We haven't seen the last of Michelle Kwan, and we certainly haven't seen the last of Tara Lipinski.

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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