- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Be on the lookout for Tara Lipinski in Salt Lake City.

Not Lipinski the skater, who won gold in Nagano. But Lipinski the verb, used when a youngster upsets the favorite. Sentence example: "Despite a great performance, I was Lipinskied." Can also be used as a noun: "I pulled a Lipinski."

Michelle Kwan knows the definition well as she was an integral part of its origin. The concept was born when Lipinski the skater beat the favored Kwan for Olympic gold in 1998, leaving the latter with four years of sympathetic smiles.

Now Kwan is back for the medal she lost, and this time she has two Tara Lipinskis to face. One is a 16-year-old from Long Island who already has beaten the veteran in competition. The other is a 17-year-old from California who has been called a "little package of dynamite." Like Lipinski, they are at the top of the field and will compete without the expected-to-win-gold pressure.

Kwan, 21, again has been pushed into the role of Olympic favorite, even more so since Russian rival Irina Slutskaya's poor showing at the recent European Championships. But for the two other Americans in Salt Lake City, Kwan is simply another skater to beat.

"I think quite a few ladies have a chance to win gold," said U.S. silver medalist Sasha Cohen. "It will just come down to whoever skates best on that day."

Cohen is the dynamite that never fails to explode. Some of the explosions are grand, like when she burst onto the scene in 2000 and almost beat Kwan for the national title. Some of the explosions are damaging, like when she tried to become the first female to land a quadruple jump at this season's Skate America and ended up ruining her program when she missed.

Cohen has been on the quad-kick all season, but after three botched attempts in competition, she and coach John Nicks agreed to put the jump aside for nationals. After Cohen sealed the deal by winning silver and making the Olympic team, her training refocused on the quad. The plan was to make history in Salt Lake City and have the jump boost Cohen into the top three.

Last week Cohen and Nicks announced they were leaving it out.

"We were training to do it after nationals," Cohen said. "I was hitting a small percentage. More recently Mr. Nicks and I decided we really want to do a safer program, a program I'm more comfortable with."

Landing a quad would have been Cohen's best shot for a medal, but she could leave it out and still finish in the top three. The passionate skater is the all-around package, with incredible flexibility and unique spiral positions.

"Her personality just blows out of her," ABC commentator Dick Button said after this year's nationals. "She's got pizzazz, she's got strength … she's got great position and she's a very theatrical little dancer."

The other Lipinski is 16-year-old Sarah Hughes, who was featured on a pre-Olympic cover of Time magazine. Though she finished third at nationals, she has been the most consistent of the top three U.S. skaters this season and has something over each of them.

What she has over Kwan is technical difficulty, and Hughes just added a second triple-triple combination to her already-challenging free skate. Kwan has trouble landing one.

What Hughes has over Cohen is international exposure. The judges have had two seasons of solid skating to acquire a taste for Hughes' style. Cohen sat out the 2000-01 season with a back injury and didn't have time to build herself into a favorite.

As the reigning world bronze medalist and U.S. silver medalist, Hughes was considered a lock for the Olympic team and a possible threat to Kwan for the national title. Cohen and California's Angela Nikodinov were expected to fight for the last spot.

Cohen changed the game plan with a near-perfect short program and a visibly upset Hughes was forced into third.

But the lower-than-expected finish at nationals has only made her hungrier. Hughes and coach Robin Wagner began working on a free skate revision that they hope will make the skater even more medal-worthy.

"When you go to the Olympics as a medal favorite, you have to go for gold," Wagner said. "You have to be in a fighting frame of mind. This way, you go home no matter what happens and say, 'You know what? I went for it.' I don't want there to be any regrets, especially knowing Sarah's personality."

Two triple-triple combinations helped Lipinski win in 1998, and Hughes will follow suit. In addition to her challenging triple Salchow-triple loop combination, the skater will add a triple toe-triple loop. She also changed the last 90 seconds of her free skate music for a finale full of speed and excitement.

"I'm here to do everything I'm capable of. It's going to be an exciting event, and I think people will be amazed by what they see," Hughes said.

Hughes and Cohen will need help from Kwan to pull off a successful Lipinski. Depsite a shaky season, Kwan showed a maturity that can't be matched when she won her sixth national title.

"I don't wake up thinking, 'I didn't win the Olympic gold,'" Kwan said. "That is the ultimate goal, but if I don't win it life goes on."

Kwan has transformed from a timid 17-year-old girl to a veteran 21-year-old lady. In Nagano, she trained in a secluded rink, didn't mix with other athletes and skated under the wing of longtime coach Frank Carroll. This time around, Kwan is more free. She attended the U.S.-Finland hockey game and has spent time in the Olympic Village. And when she faces the nine judges who will decide her golden fate, she won't have Carroll for support.

Not that she needs it. Kwan is getting pretty good at supporting herself.

"This is what I figure: I do my own business and it's out of my hands," Kwan said. "Do what you want with me."

Her American teammates are real threats, but Kwan knows they won't be skating with her resume. Four world titles. Six national titles. Olympic silver. No one else in the rink can touch that list.

Hughes and Cohen know Kwan is the skater who is supposed to win. They also know she was supposed to win in 1998.

And Michelle knows in order to avoid getting Lipinskied, she'll have to pull a Kwan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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