SIMSBURY, Conn. -- She's now a 19-year-old professional skater dabbling in acting and dealing with chronic hip problems. Hardly what anyone envisioned for Tara Lipinski as the Salt Lake City Olympics approach.
When she became the youngest Olympic women's figure skating champion, stamping the Nagano Games with her charm, youthful exuberance and stunning athletic ability, her future in the sport seemed certain. A push for a second gold in her home country appeared likely. And she would be only 23 for the 2006 Olympics.
Instead, Lipinski left the competitive skating world, moving on to ice shows and made-for-television events. The wonderful rivalry with Michelle Kwan ended just when it could have become really juicy.
And while Kwan went on to win three more world and U.S. championships, establishing her as the favorite for February in Utah, Lipinski dropped out of the skating spotlight.
Does she miss it?
''I fulfilled that part of my life,'' Lipinski said during a break from rehearsals for the Stars on Ice tour she headlines with fellow 1998 Olympic gold medalist Ilia Kulik, Kristi Yamaguchi and Katarina Witt. ''I love skating, but I don't miss the competition because I am still skating.
''You look at the Olympics and you want to win badly -- it was a dream of mine for my whole life -- but part of that is the question of what will come after it. I chose to become a professional skater, because it was a whole new place to go, not doing the same old thing of competing.''
Lipinski's competitive career was meteoric. She started in 1995 and by '96 was a contender on the world level. She soared to the national and world titles in 1997, then beat the great Sonja Henie's mark for youthfulness on the Olympic medals podium.
Almost as suddenly, she was gone from that stage, carrying with her fond memories and a resolve to make her new careers -- on and off the ice -- just as fulfilling.
''It feels like just yesterday,'' she said of the countdown to the 1998 Olympics, a countdown that Kwan is now beginning for the second time. ''I think of how hard it was and how lucky I am now, to be blessed with winning a gold medal.
''I know it is a hard road and those are long and cold months. But it would have been worth it no matter what, just because I love skating so much. Even if I did not win, I loved what I was doing, and I loved achieving my goal.''
Her goals have changed significantly. While Kwan looks to establish herself as the most accomplished skater of the modern era, Lipinski now operates on the fringes. She is an entertainer more than an athlete, although she still incorporates triple jumps in her show programs.
''It's fun to have a rivalry. It was Tara a few years ago, and now it's other skaters,'' Kwan said. ''Tara is a professional skater now, but there are others. You always have to try to be at your best, no matter who your competition is.''
Lipinski has jumped into acting with the same fervor she displays for skating. She appeared in several television series, including a recurring role in the soap opera ''The Young and the Restless,'' and in the series ''Touched by an Angel.'' She had feature roles in a TV movie, ''Ice Angel,'' and just finished shooting another film in Paris, ''The Metro Chase.''
And she had a cameo role in Cameron Crowe's ''Vanilla Sky,'' which stars Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Upcoming is an NBC TV special on Nov. 10, ''Hip-Hop on Ice with Tara Lipinski.''
Lipinski makes it clear she should not be compared to Henie, who went from Olympic gold to Hollywood stardom -- playing a skater.
''I got into the acting more this year, and decided to go for it, no matter what,'' Lipinski said. ''It's nice not to just have skating roles, so people see I can act.''
Her entire future could be in acting if Lipinski's hip problems continue. She had surgery last year for torn cartilage that was overgrowing the bone. She also was developing arthritis in the area. Lipinski must do daily exercises and have her condition monitored.
So even if she wanted to pursue more Olympic gold, her teen-age body would have betrayed her.
''I see other people with the same thing and I am pretty lucky how I came out of it,'' she said. ''The doctor has told me not to do so much, but I am getting along. And I still do the jumps, because that's part of my skating and I love doing it.''
Lipinski hopes to be in Salt Lake City representing one of her many sponsors. Will she get an urge to lace up the skates and jump onto the Delta Center ice?
''I don't think so,'' she said with a laugh. ''I have my great memories.''
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