NAGANO, Japan — When she finished the performance of her dreams, she threw her hands in the air and began to run across the ice, bouncing on her skate tips, her smile as big as the arena itself. She ran on pure adrenaline, like a kid running to meet her daddy at the airport gate — only it wasn’t the airport, it was the Olympics. And it wasn’t Daddy, it was destiny. Look who just grew up.
“I had the greatest time!” gushed 15-year-old Tara Lipinski, who won over even the stodgiest experts by capturing the Olympic gold medal in figure skating Friday night. She did it with all the things that some said could work against her: youth, speed, exuberance. And her exclamation point came in the “kiss and cry” area, where skaters receive their marks. It was there, on a night when little girls are supposed to act like graceful ladies, that the Olympic gold was greeted with, of all things, a teenaged scream.

Not a squeal, mind you. Not a giggle. We’re talking big-time howl. The front row of a Beatles concert. The day Daddy surprises you with a car. The lunch room when you find out the boy you like likes you back.

“Have you ever heard her scream like that?” Lipinski’s coach, Richard Callaghan, was asked after his prodigy became the youngest Olympic skating champion ever.

“No,” Callaghan laughed. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?”

Good? If she screamed that way in a crowded theater, she’d have cleared it out. But then, what do you expect from a kid who spent her fateful day at the Olympic Village “playing games and stuff”? It is that kind of youthful honesty that has long been Lipinski’s draw, maybe her saving grace from a world that can rob youth faster than the streets. Lipinski, who trains at the Detroit Skating Club and lives in Bloomfield Hills, looks forward to shopping and playing on the computer as much as she does to skating.

Well, OK. Almost as much. You can’t win a gold medal for shopping.

But Lipinski won one on the ice Friday night, repeating, at 15, a feat that was considered by many a fluke when she did it at 14, beating everyone in the world, including cover-girl favorite Michelle Kwan. What made it even better for young Tara was that she didn’t move in on someone else’s mistake. She simply seized the medal, first with a triple flip, then a triple-lutz-double-toe-loop combination, and finally with an astounding triple jump combination, performed just a few feet in front of the very judges who were supposed to be keeping her in her place.

She came out of those triple jumps as clean as new snow, and her ever-widening smile seemed to say, “Just try to hold me back now!” How do you hold back a hurricane?

“What were you thinking when they put the medal around your neck?” someone asked Lipinski afterward.

“I thought all the greatest thoughts,” she said. “There was not a negative thing that could have come in my mind. The only bad thing was having to leave the podium. I wanted to stay up there forever.”

Caution lost

How about that? Just when you think you’ve got figure skating figured out, along comes a little girl from a place called Sugar Land, Texas, and she jumps and smiles and screams her way into a gold medal. Wasn’t the prevailing wisdom that if Kwan, 17, stayed on her feet, the rest of the field could stay home?

Well, Kwan was good. She stayed on her feet; she never fell or forced a jump. But she skated a bit tentatively, lacking speed. She was cautious, as if protecting something she didn’t yet have.

“I wasn’t allowing myself to be me,” she said later. “I wasn’t opening up.” No such problem for Lipinski, who sprang up at you like one of those jokers in a jack-in-the-box. Skating to the music of “The Rainbow,” she seemed to grow in energy as the routine went on. By the end, she had the place in her very small hands, and between gracious glides and quickening spins, she was somewhere between a ballerina and a cheerleader.

When she finished her routine, then did her little ice jog, she stopped and held her head in her hands, then looked to the rafters. Then she went into that half-cry state, her face all soft and pliable, and her passions bubbled inside her until the judges released the artistic-merit scores, which put her ahead of Kwan, who had already skated, on six out of nine judges’ cards. A slim victory. But a victory just the same.

“I saw the No. 1 on the board and I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I kept staring and staring.”

A gracious loser

A word here for Kwan, who may have suffered from hyped expectations that were not her own making. True, she posed for cover stories or long features in just about every magazine under the sun. Most of those tributes reduced Tara to a sidebar, and perhaps Kwan, subliminally, considered that to be their true relationship. But she took her silver medal with grace and style. “I knew this wasn’t going to be a piece of cake,” she said. “Anything can happen. When I saw the scores, there was some disappointment, some tears. Maybe this isn’t the color medal I came for, but I’ll take it.

“I know in my mind I skated as well as I could, and I didn’t want to ruin the moment by worrying about whom I beat.

“Now, I’m starting to think about what I can do the next time, in 2002. I’ll be 21, so you never know.”

Isn’t that strange? The conventional wisdom had Kwan winning the gold, then quitting competitive skating for the ice show tour, with Lipinski being put in her place by the judges, having no choice but to come back in four years to try again.

Now it could be the other way around.

If that’s the case, we can only hope that Lipinski manages to do what many others have failed to do — hang on to her innocence. Everyone will want a piece of her now, and the money will be tempting. “The thing is,” Callaghan says, “this past year had as much demands as you could imagine, and you see how she just stays a teenager. She’s that rare kid.”

Let’s hope so — emphasis on the word kid.

For now, consider this a Tinkerbellish night at the figure skating world. And what a nice contrast to the last American figure skating rivalry, four years ago, between Nancy Kerrigan and the good old knee basher, Tonya Harding.

The final question asked at the medalists’ press conference was what Michelle thought of Tara and vice versa. Michelle, the second-place finisher, took the mike and gushed, “I like you, Tara.”

If that’s boring, so be it. This was a night that figure skating came a few steps back to regular people, and adopted a truth whose omission was always mystifying to me: If you’re going to have teenaged competitors, why not let them be teenagers?

Lipinski was, from the way she ran across the ice to the way she sang the national anthem with her hand over her heart, looking like a homeroom student. She began her destiny with a winning smile, she ended with a raucous scream. How very unladylike. How wonderful.

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

Tara is…

At 15 years and 8 months, the youngest figure skating champion — 60 days younger than Norway’s Sonja Henie was in 1928.

The youngest Olympic gold medalist in individual competition.

The sixth American to win the women’s event, following Tenley Albright (1956), Carol Heiss (1960), Peggy Fleming (1968), Dorothy Hamill (1976), and Kristi Yamaguchi (1992).

All of 4-feet-10 1/2 and 82 pounds.

Already selling: Tara already had endorsement deals with DKNY Kids, Campbell’s Soups, Minute Maid, Mattel and Chevrolet. So how much more is her gold worth? Her agent recently said $10 million-$15 million; he won’t guess Friday.

Her schedule

She plans to stay in Nagano for Sunday’s closing ceremonies, then skate an exhibition Tuesday in Tokyo. From there, it’s to New York for two days on the talk-show circuit, then to the family home in Sugar Land, Texas, to rest and then train for next month’s world championships. Her return date to Detroit is uncertain.

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