Younger than anyone who’s won the women’s figure skating title, Tara Lipinski is old enough to know she won’t stay on top forever.
So is Michelle Kwan.
Kwan succumbed to the pressures of the huge expectations placed on her, falling twice and skating an uncharacteristically poor program. Lipinski followed right behind her with a grace and maturity beyond her 14 years Saturday to win the women’s title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The previous youngest U.S. women’s winner was Sonya Klopfer, 15 when she earned the 1951 title. Lipinski will be 15 in June.
“I don’t think anyone can stay on top and finish first every year. Next year I’d love to be first, but my main goal is to be on the world team,” Lipinski said. “Just being a champion, no matter what the age, is great.
“I’m on a different wave length tonight, something high,” she said. “This is perfect.”
For Kwan, it was a far from perfect night, but she handled her stunning upset with the same grace she’s shown in her success.
“I have to learn something from this, kind of get my head together,” she said. “I guess you learn how to stand on the podium. You also have to learn how to take defeat.”
When Lipinski took the ice, she showed just how much she’s grown since last year’s nationals, where she finished third. Her free skate, to music from the soundtracks of “Sense and Sensibility” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” had a grace and beauty rarely seen in someone her age.
Her opening double axel was smooth, and her second jump, the triple flip, was huge. After yet another perfect jump, a triple lutzdouble toe combination, a smile came over her face that never faltered.
Her layback spin was graceful as the skirt of her pink-trimmed, egg-shell white dress fanned out behind her, and she practically floated across the ice with her skillful footwork.
“I don’t think she looked immature on the ice, and that’s what we were trying to accomplish,” said her coach, Richard Callaghan. “I want her to somehow be a sophisticated 14-year-old.”
By the time she finished her last jump, a triple toe, the roaring crowd was on its feet, and it never sat as she finished with a beautiful combination spin. Several in the crowd waved signs of 6.0.
Lipinski received marks of 5.8 and 5.9 for her performance, and was first with eight of the nine judges. She finally showed her age as the marks flashed across the scoreboard, screaming and burying her face in her hands.
“My main goal was to make the world team. I wasn’t going out there to win,” she said. “It was so exciting, just skating a good program. And after the second marks came, that’s when I actually knew.”
Kwan’s marks ranged from a 5.3 to a 5.7 for technical merit, and 5.6 to 5.9 for artistry, and she was first with one judge. She finished third in the free skate, and second overall.
Nicole Bobek, the 1995 national champion who had to withdraw last year because of an injury, vaulted to third with a beautiful free skate to music from “Giselle.” She was sixth after the short program, and second in the free skate behind Lipinski.
Lipinski, Kwan and Bobek all advanced to next month’s world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“I think Tara is bright enough to accept that she had a great night and the champion had an off night, and because she had a great night, she is the champion this year,” Callaghan said. “But because she will have a long career, there will be some highs and lows.”
They only have to look at Kwan to see that. The 16-year-old has been so strong the past two years and seemed a shoo-in for a second title.
She nailed her first jump, a triple lutz-double toe, and looked as if she was going to be as good as always.
Then disaster struck. At the end of her triple toe-double toe combination, she lurched forward and fell off her edge, tumbling to the ice. A look of disbelief crossed her face and a huge gasp went up from the crowd.
She fell out of her next jump, a triple flip, but managed to keep herself from falling. She couldn’t do that on the triple loop that followed, as she went crashing to the ice.
The audience sensed Kwan’s insecurity, and began clapping to encourage her. She pulled herself together, landing a double lutz and two more triples for a strong finish.
“I wasn’t shocked,” coach Frank Carroll said of Kwan’s performance. “I just think how many times can you go out and do it and do it and do it without having a bad fall? Unfortunately, it was tonight.”
MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.