If you ask anyone in my life, they will tell you that I hated Tara Lipinski growing up. As a young closeted boy, I had a pure love for Michelle Kwan. Michelle was going to win the Olympics. She was both an athlete and an artist. Unfortunately, Tara Lipinski had other plans.
The tenacious Tara Lipinski remains one of the greatest competitors that the sport has ever seen. My eleven-year-old self threw a remote control at the television set when Tara dethroned my personal skating savior. I hated her because she was good.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with the charismatic Olympic Champion about her return to the skating world. Tara Lipinski is currently commentating for Universal Sports and served as the Skating With The Stars correspondent for Inside Edition. The Olympic Champion has also returned to the ice after six years away and still has some serious moves. Her commentary has been met with wide acclaim and it appears that the figure skating world’s fiercest competitor and part-time villain has found her true niche.
In Part One of our interview, I was able to get a grip of how to prepare to compete with a butcher knife. It is my hope to be landing triple loop+triple loops by the end of Part Two. Miss Lipinski is candid, insightful and always full of personality.
AJ: Tara, you’ve recently come back to skating in a big way after a long break, commentating and performing again. How did it come about?
TL: I first took a year off of skating after being severely burnt out. I tend to make rash decisions based on gut feelings and it gets me in trouble sometimes, but I just felt that I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought it would just be a year off, but then small acting jobs and voiceover work came in and I liked being ‘normal.’ I’ve always thought about commentating, but I was too young to do it. I always like watching skating with my friends, being critical and making them laugh. I’d like to be remembered as someone who is genuine and emotes what they’re feeling. I started commentating with Ice Network and my agent warned me that it would be very difficult. I told him, ‘I have this. I’m going to do it. I’m in one hundred percent.’ At the end of my first night with Ice Network, I couldn’t believe how difficult the timing and choosing what to say actually is. I love it though and hope to continue down this path.
AJ: You are very technical with your commentary, but you also remember every detail and missed jump by a skater at past competitions. What kind of notes do you have? You always can remember what Alissa Czisny missed at 2010 Nationals. [Editor’s Note---I watch skating with bitchy gays whose automatic response is---which one?!]
TL: I am very OCD and have notebooks upon notebooks of notes when I’m preparing to commentate. My friends will call and my mom will come in and tell me that I have to stop, but I love it. When I do it, I’m all in and really enjoy it. I’m very critical, but I remember the skaters have to have guts to be out there.
AJ: You skated during the era of Dick Button and Peggy Fleming commentating for ABC. Did you listen to what the commentators said when you were competing?
TL: When Dick and Peggy walked into the arena, it was like they were gods. I definitely listened to what Dick said and still tease him about my layback. My back was way too high, but it just wouldn’t bend like that! Dick was critical, but he was funny and always himself. I always try to be that genuine when commentating.
AJ: Do you have a goal of where you’d like to be in 10 years?
TL: Definitely. I am commentating for Universal Sports now and I really want to do more commentary for networks. I want to be a part of skating and a part of the team on the air like Scott Hamilton, Dick Button and Peggy Fleming. I definitely see myself commentating when little kids can do a triple loop+triple loop by age four.
AJ: Have you thought about branching out and doing some sort of talk show or entertainment show? You seem to have that personality.
TL: I look at Summer Sanders and how she branched out seamlessly to other sports and would like to do something like that. I’m not exactly sure, but right now that is what I want to do. I’m definitely open to anything. I’m just not sure that I could really do the cheese of daytime or something like that.
AJ: Um, didn’t you rap your last season on Stars on Ice?
TL: Oh yes, we all totally rapped!
AJ: You performed on the Today Show this spring and looked very good. How much are you skating right now?
TL: I was on the ice a lot this past fall. I was going through some things in my personal life and just missed that feeling. I was going to the rink every day again and jumping again. Right now, I just got back from a trip to Europe and took about a month off. I’ve been back on the ice once and will probably not skate much until the fall.
AJ: Are you open to performing again? Sasha Cohen is going to school and Stars on Ice will probably need a new female lead. Have you considered going back?
TL: I don’t know if I’d do Stars again. I’m really not sure what I want to do with skating. Obviously, the skating landscape has changed a lot since I took my break. My years on Stars on Ice were so memorable and magical. I was so lucky to be on tour with Kurt [Browning], Scott [Hamilton], Kristi [Yamaguchi] and Katarina [Witt.] I feel like if I toured again, it would be weird without them all being there. I may be biased, but I feel like I was on the tour when it was the best it ever was.
AJ: Did you go to Stars on Ice at all during your time away from the ice?
TL: I went once or twice. I was really happy chilling out and being ‘normal’ for once, but whenever I go back I feel like I should do it again.
AJ: You were on tour as a teenager and doing endorsements and whatnot. Were you able to have a life? Date at all?
TL: No. No. No. Not at all. That is part of the reason why I needed to take a break. My life was just as hectic as when I was competing, but I was just on tour.
AJ: What jumps were you able to do at the end of your time on Stars? I’ve been told that you could still do everything around the time of the 2002 Olympics, even though you weren’t doing it on tour.
TL: I was nuts and did 13 triples a night my first two years on tour. I was in so much pain before hip surgery and it would flare up. My jumps actually got bigger and stronger after hip surgery. I could still do flip, lutz, and loop+loop, but I didn’t want to aggravate my hip again. I look to Kurt Browning as the ultimate performer. He is still ultra-competitive, but he isn’t doing thirteen triples a night. I decided to just do triple toe and triple salchow to avoid reinjuring it.
AJ: What are you able to do on the ice now?
TL: I really thought I would have to relearn everything after being off the ice for about five or six years. I was back on the ice the first day and wanted to jump. I thought it would probably feel weird. I skated around and did an axel, but it didn’t [feel weird]. Then I did a double salchow and a double loop and it didn’t feel weird. I know that if I keep skating, I’ll want to do all my triples again and then I’ll want to perform all the time again.
AJ: Have you done any triples?
TL: I haven’t really tried triples since I’ve been back. Actually, scratch that! I did a triple toe after I got back from the tribute show in December. I’m not letting that get away! I did do one.
AJ: You’ve been skating with Evan Lysacek when you’re in LA. How did that happen?
TL: Our paths kept crossing and he is such a great guy. He is so funny and genuine, with a great sense of humor when he’s not in competition mode. He works so hard, so incredibly hard.
AJ: Who works harder, you or Evan?
TL: I really can’t say, but we both worked hard. I felt like I knew Evan would win the Olympics because of the training he did. I think that is what makes the difference. To be honest, I really can’t say that there is one day before the Olympics where I should’ve worked hard or I could’ve given more.
AJ: There are chapters in books devoted to your training sessions. What was your training really like? How many programs and jumps were you actually doing a day?
TL: My training was the same in September that it was in December. I always did a short program during my first session, a long during the second, back-to-back longs during the third and a short during the fourth. I don't know how Mr. Callaghan really felt about that, but that was just me. Todd [Eldredge] trained extremely hard, but he wasn’t doing the same plan. I always trained with a quiet intensity, but I was so emotional. Every day at the rink was a soap opera. I couldn’t do a triple flip for a month after ’98 Nationals and I’d go back to the rink at night and dodge little tots skating around. I always loved to compete, but the practice really was always exciting. I always needed to be the first person on the ice after the warm up and it got me prepared for competition.
AJ: Was roller skating just as intense for you?
TL: I don’t know if it is as cutthroat. When I did roller skating, it was a social thing. It was about friends and Christmas shows.
AJ: Was roller skating the reason for your incredible triple loop? So many American figure skaters struggle with triple loops, but it was such a good jump for you.
TL: I’ve thought about that a lot and I’m not sure. The triple loop is so hard, but it is all in the take off. I’ll look at skaters going into a triple loop and want to yell ‘No! No! No!’
AJ: Have you always been incredibly focused?
TL: Mr. Callaghan would probably love this, but I really didn’t like focusing when I was young. When I competed in Novice and Juniors, I’d be playing my Nintendo and hand it to Megan [Faulkner] before I went to compete. It wasn’t until I got to Seniors and was on the Grand Prix that first year that I had that nauseous feeling and my legs felt shaky. I’ve always had an inner competitor. I always ate dinner with my parents at competitions. I’d be relaxed all day and then 4 p.m. would come around and I’d flip a switch. I’d always walk back to their room after dinner and tell them that I was going to do it.
AJ: You first landed on the scene at the 1994 Olympic Festival. How did your life change after that?
TL: I was still skating at the Galleria at that time. I came home from the Olympic Festival and forgot how to do a triple loop for a good six weeks. There were tears, hysterics and just ‘oh my gosh there is pressure.’ I began working with a sports psychologist shortly after that.
AJ: How did the sports psychologist help you?
TL: I believe that certain people are born competitors. Whenever I did really well, I’d shut my brain off while I was competing. I had to learn how to do that and how to train my brain to go into that extra space. There is a certain feeling. When you’re in that space, you aren’t timid.
AJ: There was a lot of attention on you at the ’95 Nationals. Were you devastated when you didn’t win Juniors?
TL: I definitely wanted to win, but I was always okay as long as I did my best. I always had to skate a clean program. I would say I was content with how I did. You’re never happy to not win a title, but it wasn’t as dramatic as others made it out to be. Losing Junior Nationals wasn’t as life or death as losing a title would be in the end.
AJ: You were known for wanting to win, but there is an interview of you saying that you ‘just wanted to be fifth or sixth’ at ’97 Worlds. Did you have media training to learn how to say that?
TL: Oh, I was totally lying! I never had media training, which is probably why there are so many crazy things out there. I used to love to mess with the reporters at press conferences and tell them ‘I think I’ll go for my triple lutz+triple loop this competition.’ As for saying I wanted to just skate well and do my best, I’d almost be just trying to convince myself that there was no pressure. The minute I’d leave the room, the pressure was back.
AJ: How close were you to doing the triple lutz+triple loop?
TL: It was done. I think I went for it once, popped it and just did a triple lutz+double loop. The triple flip was really my weapon in the short program since so many girls were just doing triple toes. Mr. Callaghan and I discussed whether or not to take the extra risk and we decided that the triple flip was enough.
AJ: Going into the ’96 Nationals, you had just switched coaches to Richard Callaghan after Nicole Bobek went on the Nutcracker tour and left. Did you know that the third spot on the World Team was potentially open?
TL: As a skater, you know what is possible. I had really improved in a short amount of time. After the short, I really wanted to show everyone what I was capable of. It was definitely a surprise to be on the World Team and going to Worlds that first year.
AJ: You had quite the memorable first trip to Worlds. Was the entire experience overwhelming for you?
TL: It really wasn’t. This is what happened: Qualifying was amazing and I finished second. Midori Ito, whom I love, skated before me and missed her triple axel. I turned to Megan [Faulker] and said ‘I could beat Midori Ito.’ I went out there and was way too pumped and not balanced. If you watch my triple lutz, it was fine. I had extra juice and never got to the toe on my loop takeoff. After that, I was in panic mode and missed the flip. I made the long program by one spot and had to wait to see if I’d make the draw. I skated in the long program group with Mexico and the African Nations. It was a disaster, but I really learned a giant lesson.
AJ: What happened after your short program?
TL: I was hysterical and locked myself in a broom closet. I really did. Mr. Callaghan was always so calm, but I really needed my mom. ‘Mom, tell Mr. Callaghan that I can’t do anything.’ Mr. Callaghan is known for being intense, but I was ten times as intense. I was super-emotional, really upset and just embarrassed. It was a disaster. I had a practice that night and remember sitting with my mom and feeling a change come over me. I became super angry and went out and had the best practice. I knew I was going to do well in the long. From then on, I realized that I skated my best when I got angry. I finished 15th, which was definitely not what they [the federation] were hoping for; it wasn’t great.
AJ: You performed with Champions on Ice after the 1996 World Championships. Skaters don’t perform nearly as much anymore. Did it help you as a competitor?
TL: I performed with Champions on Ice, but I didn’t do every city because I was still a newbie. Touring is different for everyone, but I did six triples every night. It was almost like preparing for competition because you do the same thing every night. It really helps with the nerves. It is like if you’re afraid of flying, you fly somewhere to get over it.
AJ: What changed after competing in your first World Championships?
TL: So much changed after my first Worlds. I was still growing and my jumps changed so much when I was 13. Mr. Callaghan changed my axel and I fought him the entire way. He changed my lutz entrance and I changed from a toe loop to a toe-walley. My jumps just got bigger and we worked on my flutz. I didn’t have my triple flip or triple lutz consistently until two weeks before 1996 Nationals. Everything happened so fast and my jumps got easier. I began playing around with so many different triple-triples. Even from ’97 to ’98, my jumps improved so much.
AJ: You began working with Sandra Bezic in the summer of 1996. What was it like working with her for the first time?
TL: Sandra is a goddess. She walks like a goddess and just holds herself like a goddess. It was very intimidating to work with Sandra, but she made me feel so comfortable. It was difficult, because I needed to mature very quickly and you can’t really do that at 13 or 14. I was also very stubborn with my music choices and needed to feel it, which is probably why I chose to skate to Speed at 13. Sandra really helped me so much. My body just couldn’t do some things at that age. I learned how to feel the rise and the fall of movement and that choreography needs a beginning and an end point. Sandra helped me find my grace.
AJ: You medaled at every Grand Prix event during the fall of 1996. How was that experience for you?
TL: I was not happy with my performances on the Grand Prix. I was dealing with nerves and started working with sports psychologists. I learned how to peak at the right time and train my mind to trust that I would get to where I needed to be by the end of the season.
AJ: Did you stop panicking when you’d make mistakes and know that you’d have it when you needed it?
TL: Oh no, always panicking!
AJ: Did you go into 1997 Nationals thinking you had a chance to win?
TL: I definitely thought I had a chance. I was practicing so well and was doing triple flip+triple toe and triple lutz+triple loop in the practices even though they weren’t in the program.
AJ: Were you aware of what your competitors were doing on practice sessions? Did you and Michelle try to one-up one another?
TL: I was always aware of what everyone was doing and would talk to my coaches about how good they looked. I always did better when a competition was involved. Every day had to have some sort of competition. Todd and I made bets every day. With Michelle and I, we were competitive on the ice. Most people would be surprised to be a fly on the wall when we see each other, because it isn’t like what it has been made out to be. I am so grateful that I had such an amazing competitor to motivate me. I competed against one of the greatest skaters of all time and that is something that is definitely not lost on me.
AJ: Were you aware of the drama that was taking place on the ice before your long program at ’97 Nationals? At that time, Michelle Kwan was the anointed skater and suffering a meltdown. The skating world was seemingly ending.
TL: I don’t even remember if I heard the marks or not, because I was already in the zone at that point. I believe I saw her skate by me looking upset, but I learned not to react like I had at Worlds.
AJ: How did that day change your life? Did you believe you could win the Olympic Gold Medal before that event?
TL: That day changed my life a lot. Before that, I was in the public eye, but it wasn’t nearly the same. Winning the Olympics was always my ultimate dream, but I never really believed it could happen the next year before I won Nationals.
AJ: Winning a major title is often a turning point for many skaters. There are some who use it as a springboard, but many are never able to do as well ever again. How were you able to handle the pressure?
TL: There is definitely a fine line with handling pressure and realizing that a title is at your fingertips. Luckily, I had a very good circle around me. I am also superstitious. I never talked about placements ever. My parents didn’t discuss placements. My coaches and I never discussed that I could win the Olympics. We knew there was a chance, but we never focused on the placement.