Tara Lipinski attends the exclusive Olympic Panel Discussion at the NBC Sports Lawn at SXSW on March 11, 2016 in Austin, Texas.
Tara Lipinski is one of the rare figure skaters to have savored two Olympic triumphs. The first, in Nagano in 1998, saw the bubbly 15-year-old outjump the field to emerge as the youngest Olympic gold medalist in an individual Winter Games event.
The second, four years ago in Sochi, came as Lipinski partnered with Johnny Weir to call the competition for NBC. Among viewers, the duo’s thoughtful, informative play-by-play earned both unofficial golds in a hitherto little-known event: team figure skating commentary.
This year, as she celebrates the 20th anniversary of her Nagano gold medal and prepares for another round of Olympic analysis for NBC, Lipinski has had the chance to sit and reflect on the direction her sport has taken — not to mention watch her own performances again.
“Johnny and I were just filming something for NBC, and we did a fun thing where he commentated my Olympic long program,” Lipinski recounted to a dozen reporters during a conference call Thursday. “When I watch it — and I said it — I get extremely nervous, even though I know the outcome. It just takes me back into that moment, and at an Olympic Games the emotions are running so high. I can still see myself as this little girl stepping into this big world, a little bit terrified, and having the time of her life.”
The U.S. figure skating landscape in 2017 looks dramatically different from the late 1990s, years when Lipinski and five-time world champion Michelle Kwan dominated the sport. The “clear favorite” heading into PyeongChang is two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, a rare talent who is as expressive as she is athletic, Lipinski said.
That Medvedeva (and other top Russians) skates half her free program before launching herself into some of her most difficult jumps, known as “back loading” a program with difficulty, is a testament to their fitness and prowess on the ice, she added.
“The women have definitely not been on the same track as the men with the quad revolution, but I do see a turn” when it comes to difficulty, Lipinski said. “To me it’s a huge difference from what we saw in Sochi. We’re now seeing very difficult triple-triples, two of them, arms over the head, which makes it just that much more difficult.”
The trend underlines where the Russian school diverged from the U.S. in developing its skaters, Lipinski said.
For years, the Russian system has rewarded skaters who pushed the difficulty envelope, even if they made mistakes doing it, she explained. Meanwhile in the U.S., younger skaters were rewarded for cleaner skates, “doing easier jumps and artistry,” Lipinski said. That bred elegance on ice but did not stimulate skaters to develop the combinations of triple jumps now almost compulsory to challenge for world and Olympic podiums.
“(The U.S. Figure Skating Association) has now implemented a similar program, but it happened years after what was already happening in Russia,” Lipinski noted. “If we’re comparing it to the U.S., the triple flip-triple toe is still a 50/50 shot for these girls. In Russia, that’s not the case. It’s almost like walking for them.”
For PyeongChang, Lipinski sees Olympian and 2016 world silver medalist Ashley Wagner, whom she praises as “a beautiful artist and storyteller,” as Team USA’s biggest hope for a medal on the women’s side.
“The constant struggle in our sport always is finding the balance between artistry and the technical side, the athletic side of the sport,” she said. “But I think that’s what makes skating so magical is because everyone does have their own different preferences and opinions. It’s definitely a bit more interesting than a sport that has a finish line.”
The Russians remain the skaters to beat, however.
“I’m predicting two Russian ladies on the podium,” Lipinski said.
That goes despite the International Olympic Committee’s recent ban on the Russian Olympic Committee following a doping scandal, which nevertheless left the door open for many Russian athletes to compete at the Games under a neutral flag.
“I think at this point it’s the best possible outcome,” Lipinski said. “The Olympics is this prestigious, sacred event, and you want clean athletes and fair competition. That’s what these athletes give up their lives for.”
When she watches herself in 1998, Lipinski doesn’t remember too much about what she felt when she was on the ice. Much clearer is her recollection of marching into the Olympic stadium with the U.S. team during the Opening Ceremony, eating in the dining hall of the Olympic Village, meeting athletes from around the world, marveling at being part of an Olympic Games.
“Looking back, those are some of my best memories. Cliché as it is, you kind of go into that zone when you’re competing and the stress, it’s a surreal moment you can’t really remember very well. That’s how I feel,” she said. “I remember every single moment of experiencing everything else an Olympic Games has to offer. That joy and excitement of being there only helped when I stepped on the ice.”