Tara Lipinski. The very mention of her name conjures up an image of a pixie-like 15-year-old skating to the top of the Olympic podium in 1998.
More than a decade and a half later, Lipinski still holds a unique place in the historical record books as the youngest person to ever claim the golden crown at an Olympic Winter Games.
I caught up with Lipinski recently. The intelligent and articulate voice on the other end of the phone was filled with warmth and a generous dose of confidence and self-knowledge. It is clear in speaking with her that this ‘pixie’ has always had more to her than met the eye.
Though it was almost half a lifetime ago, the memories of what transpired in Nagano, Japan, are forever etched in Lipinski’s memory. “Winning that Olympic title was probably the best moment in my life,” she said. “You know, I look back — all the memories and everything that happened there — the whole experience was amazing.”
When asked if she had one very special memory from that magical experience, Lipinski did not hesitate. “That long program was the moment. When you realize your dream and it’s coming true, it is the best moment. It is an incredible feeling.”
Lipinski is quick to acknowledge those who guided her along the way, noting that she could not have had better parents. If she had decided to become an astronaut, they would have supported her.
She also cited the late Christopher Bowman’s showmanship and the consistency of Olympic champions Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi as having a profound influence on her.
And so it was with the support of those close to her that Lipinski left the amateur ranks in April 1998. Though she has no regrets, she acknowledged that it is a different world today, where skaters have the option of taking time off without jeopardizing their amateur status.
“I might have kept my eligibility,” she admitted. “I don’t think I would have competed again but I would have kept my options open.”
At the time, Lipinski felt she had no more goals to achieve as an amateur, having won everything there was to win, including two Champions Series Final titles (1997-98 — now known as the Grand Prix Final), the U.S. and World titles in 1997 and the 1998 Olympic crown.
Lipinski turned professional and set her sights on conquering a new world. At age 17, she won the 1999 World Professional Figure Skating Championships, the youngest person to ever claim the title.
Touring with Stars on Ice for four seasons taught her how to be an entertainer. She recalled her days on the road with fondness. “When I went on tour, I was very young but the other skaters were so great. They were wonderful,” she said. “They were all so supportive and they helped me grow. It was a different experience.
“But I was pretty much alone because I was too young to do what they were doing. I was always the youngest one, the little girl. Now that I am older, I understand.”
It also provided the proudest moment of her professional career when she performed a tribute number (“Shenandoah”) in honor of the fallen firefighters from 9/11 with some of their families in attendance. Lipinski said it was an honor and a privilege, and she was personally moved by the experience.
After touring nonstop for close to six years, Lipinski woke up one day and knew she needed a break. She took a vacation in Hawaii. It was the first time she had more than four days in a row off since she embraced figure skating as a serious part of her life a decade and a half earlier.
The 28-year-old said she wants to experience everything in life. The enthusiasm in her voice was infectious as she spoke of the different opportunities she has explored since leaving the skating world seven years ago.
“In my early 20s, I wanted to take a little break from skating and see what life was about,” she said. “When you grow up as a skater, that’s all you know.”
Lipinski turned her attention to acting, earning roles in a number of television shows including “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Veronica’s Closet,” “7th Heaven” and “Still Standing.” She had a cameo appearance in the film “Vanilla Sky” and had the starring role in the movie “Ice Angel” in 2000.
Lipinski cites her mother, Pat, as her biggest role model. One of the many lessons her mother taught her was the importance of giving back.
“Charity is a huge part of my life,” Lipinski said. “I was 14 when my mom first got me involved. She took me to the local kids’ hospital when we were at nationals, and it had a huge impact on me. After that, when I was having a bad day with my skating, I would remember those kids. That recollection changed how I competed. It inspired me.”
Lipinski is involved with children’s charities including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Childhood Leukemia Foundation. She is also a spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Lipinski made another career change in 2010 when she stepped back into skating as a television commentator at the World Championships in Torino, Italy. It was a role she warmly embraced and Lipinski realized that working in television is something she is interested in doing long term.
“It was a completely different experience but I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I have a lot to learn obviously, but I was a competitor and I understand the sport. I feel like I am part of the amateur ranks again and I am so glad to be back.”
This season she covered the Grand Prix Series for NBC and Universal Sports and will be providing expert insight at the 2011 Worlds in Tokyo, Japan.
After skating intermittently the past seven years, Lipinski recently returned to the ice as a performer when she took part in “The Caesar’s Tribute: A Salute to the Golden Age of American Skating,” which showcased many of America’s skating heroes.
“I got on the ice a month before the show and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to really do it,” she said. “I skated in the finalé for the tribute show and it sparked something in me. The break from skating was just what I needed. I have found a renewed love for the sport.”
Originally published in April 2011