03/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
ON THE ICE AT THE SOLD-OUT NASHVILLE ARENA, 16-YEAR-OLD Michelle Kwan—U.S. figure skating's reigning champion—was looking unexpectedly beatable. She had fallen during her critical long program, not once but twice. Suddenly the stage was set for Cinderella to steal the show, and everyone on hand for the National Championships on Feb. 15 seemed to know it, except Cinderella. "I was the next one on, so I had to retie my skates and get ready to go," says Tara Lipinski, 14. "I didn't have time to think, 'Oh, she didn't skate well; I have to win.' I just had to be confident and pretend it was a practice."
Who says fairy tales don't come true? Tiny Tara, all of 4'8¾" and 74 pounds, stunned the skating world by nailing a difficult triple loop-triple loop combination—the first by an American woman in competition—on her way to placing first and becoming the youngest U.S. figure-skating champion ever. "Winning was a surprise," admits Tara, who, unlike many top skaters, started training in public shopping-mall rinks. "At first I was in shock, and for the rest of the night I acted all regular, but when I woke up the next day I was like, 'Oh my gosh! I can't believe it!' "
She wasn't the only one. "We never, ever expected it," says Tara's mother, Pat, a former Wall Street secretary who, with her husband, Jack, a vice president with Houston-based Coastal Corp., watched on a monitor beneath the stands as their cool-as-ice daughter executed seven tricky triple jumps. "It's kind of strange," says Tara. "It was the Nationals, but I was pretty calm."
Stranger still, she was just as unruffled two days later, on a whirlwind trip to New York City to do Good Morning America and CBS's This Morning. "People keep asking her, 'How does it feel?' " says Pat, 46. "And last night she asked me, 'How am I supposed to feel?' " Her coach, Richard Callaghan, says, "Winning was such a surprise that Tara doesn't quite yet understand what is happening." But she'll catch on; Tara has already proved she's a quick learner. She was only 3 when she started roller-skating lessons at a rink near her Sewell, N.J., home. Three years later she tried ice-skating, and in her first hour "she had transferred everything she knew from roller-skating," says Pat, "and was doing jumps and turns on the ice."
After her father was reassigned to Houston in 1991, Tara would get up at 3 a.m. to skate at the public Galleria rink before school. When that proved too grueling, mother and daughter moved back to New Jersey so Tara could skate during the day at her old rink in nearby Delaware and get tutored after practice. Then, two years ago, Tara signed with Callaghan and moved with her mother into a rented condo in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "I'm not saying it's the greatest situation," says Pat of being separated from her husband of 20 years. "But we try to find ways to make it work."
Jack, 46, sees his family at least twice a month and routinely runs up phone bills of "a couple of hundred dollars," he says, "talking to Tara every day after school and both Tara and Pat again every night." Neither parent considered the common practice of letting Tara live with a host family in Michigan. "We would never do that," says Jack. "We have one daughter, and she's going to be raised by one of us."
That decision has been costly: Expenses can run up to $50,000 a year at Tara's level of competition (her occasional paid appearances at skating exhibitions have helped). But the Lipinskis' sacrifices started paying off in 1995, when Tara took second place at the Junior Nationals in Providence. A year later she placed third at the grown-up Nationals. Now, after winning this year's title, Tara has set her sights on the World Championships in Switzerland starting March 16 and, beyond that, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. "I have a whole year to improve," says Tara. "If I make the team, I'll be happy."
Her mother has a longer-range goal. "She's going to college," says Pat. "She promised me. I'm keeping my fingers crossed because my dream is for her to go to one of the best colleges in the country." Partial to math and biology, Tara doesn't attend classes but spends four hours a day with tutors. She maintains a straight-A average by doing two hours of homework a night, which, on top of 4½-hour practices every weekday, leaves her barely enough time to watch her favorite TV shows, Friends and Party of Five, or to hang out with her skating buddies. "She's pulling away from me a little," says Pat. "She likes to do her own things. When she was 11 or 12 it was, 'Mommy, let's hold hands and go for a walk.' It's not that anymore."
Other changes surely await Tara, who now faces the same pressure to perform that may have caused Michelle Kwan to fall at the Nationals. But Tara's Nashville heroics have her parents convinced that the clock won't strike midnight anytime soon. "She's so far beyond where we thought she'd be, there's no telling where she's going from here," says Jack. "She always rises to the occasion."
ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City, JONI H. BLACKMAN in Bloomfield Hills and LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS in Houston