BE CAREFUL, TARA — YOU MIGHT WIN

NAGANO, Japan — I like the kid. I can’t help it.

I don’t always like her sport. I don’t like what it does to young girls, the time it demands, the schooling it robs. I don’t like the lipstick, the eye shadow, or the flirting, short-skirt costumes it drapes on children who aren’t even old enough to drive. I definitely don’t like the judges.

But I like Tara Lipinski. I have for a while. Most big-city sports columnists, myself included, never even meet Olympic skaters before the Olympics.

But Lipinski lives nearby, in Bloomfield Hills. She trains at the Detroit Skating Club. We have spent time together in relaxed settings, when there was no ice, no judges, no crowds, when she wore jeans and sneakers and striped shirts and a bright-eyed, teenaged look.

It was that same youthful countenance she wore Wednesday in her Olympic short program, when she wowed the crowd with a neat and near-flawless performance. She spun like a ballerina in a music box, and she swayed like the notes of the music themselves. But she came out of her jumps with an open-mouthed, excited look that, if you drew a cartoon bubble, could only read one word: “Cool!”

In fact, Lipinski, 15, did indeed utter that teenaged mantra, after scoring high enough to temporarily take the lead in the women’s competition. She came around the corner, waddling on her skates, and saw the mob of reporters waiting in the White Ring hallway.

And she said, “Cool!”

She then answered questions with the same blend of exuberance and maturity that has characterized her stay at these games. Lipinski, unlike her more-programmed 17-year-old American rival, Michelle Kwan, was here to march in the opening ceremonies. (“I wouldn’t have missed that for anything,” she gushed.)

And Lipinski, unlike Kwan, is living in the Olympic Village and giving updates to fans on her Web site.

And Lipinski, unlike Kwan, has a roommate, and they check their E-mail and they play their video games and listen to their CD music.

I like all of that about Tara Lipinski, just as I like her roller-skating past, her love of pasta, and the way she responds to my teasing about how tall she is. She says things like, “Now I’m 4-foot-9 3/4, but I’m rounding it off to 4-foot-10.”

I like all that. And because she has put so much time and energy into this Olympic moment, I’m happy for her second-place position — behind Kwan — going into the long program Friday.

I’m happy for her.

But I’m not sure I want her to win.

The price of fame

Let’s face it. A gold medal in figure skating changes the life of the winner forever. A professional tour immediately will beckon, as will endorsements, appearances, perhaps even movie or TV roles. Only a fool — or the most disciplined of families — would turn down the money. Some have estimated a figure-skating gold to be worth between $10 million and $15 million.

If Lipinski were to win, the pressure on her to tend to grown-up issues — money, agents, contracts, schedules — would be enormous. True, she has been dealing with such things, in a limited way, for the last few years. But nowhere near the permanent gushing waterfall that a gold medal brings.

At which point, what becomes of the little youth she still has left? Until now, she has devoted four hours a day to schooling with tutors, with her social life coming mostly at the rink. It’s hardly normal, but at least there is a structure. She has friends. Her competitions are set on the calendar. She can build for each one, while still coming home a good part of the year to the same place.

If a pro career beckons, would it be a life of hotels and room service? For someone who is currently in 10th grade? I keep thinking about Mary Lou Retton, an exuberant teen gymnast who became a corporate automaton after the gold medal was draped around her neck. It was lucrative, but it wasn’t normal.

Lipinski is even ahead of Retton. She became the youngest figure skating world champion ever last year, when she won the crown at 14. Now, she could lower the bar in the Olympics. It would be historic. It would be headline news.

But in the glass-house world of international attention, would it be good for her?

Am I foolish to even ask?

The price of youth

Clearly such issues were not on Tara’s mind — or the mind of her coach, Richard Callaghan — when she skated her routine Wednesday, set, perhaps fittingly, to the music of a cartoon film, “Anastasia.”

“I asked her before — as I always do — how nervous she was on a scale of one to 10,” Callaghan said. “And she said seven.”

Was that a good sign?

“I’ll take seven. You want her a little nervous. If she’s not nervous there’s something wrong.”

The nerves must have been on the inside. Lipinski skated with a flair and a speed that suggested a kid ripping open a Christmas present. And when the judges flashed their marks — mostly 5.7s for required elements, mostly 5.8s for artistic merit — she pumped a small fist in delighted satisfaction.

“I was so happy when I finished, I almost wanted to cry,” she said. “It feels so good when you do it that I wanted to stay in the moment. I wanted to skate my long program right then!”

That will come soon enough, Friday night Japan time, to be precise. And, if the judges have their way, she will finish right where she sits at this moment, second to Kwan, who skates with the “artistic” label that the skating world loves — not to mention the older birth certificate.

Maybe that’s unfair. Or maybe it’s for the best. I remember discussing this a few months ago with Lipinski and Callaghan in Detroit. I asked whether the judges were taking her age into account, and Callaghan admitted, against his wishes, they were. “They probably want to save her for 2002,” he said.

She answered with a disturbed scowl: “But I’m 15 now!”

Ah, youth. We’re in such a hurry to grow up, then so desperate to feel young again. It’s the former that makes me root for her gold, and the latter that makes me wonder whether all that glitters may be silver.

Of course, I have nothing to do with it. It’s her life, she’s her parents’ child, and Lord knows mothers and fathers have done worse things to their kids than provide them with the chance to be rich and famous.

But I wonder, even in the minds of those who love her, whether there isn’t a small voice that whispers “be careful” as she glides toward her destiny at these Olympics. This is a delightful girl, one who, in navigating her age and her skill, has managed an even trickier skate than what you saw Wednesday.

“Cool!” she said. Cool she was. It’s that little cartoon bubble you hope she never loses, with all she is about to gain.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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