Sixteen years ago, Tara Lipinski was the breakout star of the Winter Olympics after winning the figure skating gold medal at just 15 to become the youngest individual champion in Winter Olympic history. Sixteen years later, she's once again the breakout star of the Winter Olympics — or half of a pair.
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Lipinski and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir have won over fans old and new in Sochi — not only with their insightful, cheeky commentary on NBC Sports Network that has many wondering why they're not the "A team" in prime time, but with their awesomely coordinated wardrobes and wacky off-camera antics as well. "That is the goal!" Lipinski tells TVGuide.com with a laugh. "I just want people to enjoy us. We have a great time together and we want everyone at home to too. I really want to bring skating back to the spotlight it should be in and bring a fun, fresh perspective."
One could say she got a head-start with her hilarious Big Lipinski video for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. "That was great. They just called me with that idea. I thought it was hilarious," she says. "It was something outside the box and who knows — maybe you'll see something like that from Johnny and me here."
Ironically, NBC didn't plan on pairing the besties — they nap together — until they suggested it. Lipinski has been doing commentary with Terry Gannon, who's the third Musketeer in the duo's Sochi booth, for the ladies' Grand Prix events the past few years, and Weir joined this season for the men's events. "They gave us a little trial and we definitely passed the test," she says. "When you work with a close friend, you don't know what that's going to be like. Johnny and I just goof off. We have the same view of where we want to take this and what we want to give to the viewer and how we want people to view skating. We have a good time, obviously, off-camera as well that we started a joint Twitter account. I'm having a blast. It's really great to be on this side of things."
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Broadcasting and covering the Olympics had always been a "dream job," Lipinski says, but she didn't start pursuing it until several years ago after taking a break following her professional career. Taking advantage of the numerous opportunities for skaters when the sport was at the height of its fame in the '90s, Lipinski turned pro less than two months after her Nagano victory. She says she has no regrets retiring at 15, even as more skaters stay competitive longer and go to multiple Olympics these days. Lipinski, 31, is the same age as Russia's four-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko, who retired Thursday after withdrawing from the men's event with an ongoing back injury.
"If I came up with this generation, I would've competed much longer than I did," she says. "I probably worked more than I did as an amateur because of all the TV shows and tours. Even though the same pro opportunities might not be there now, these skaters go at it much longer, which I think is really nice. It gives them more opportunities, like Plushenko and Jeremy Abbott, who's had a very up-and-down career. We don't know what's going to happen to him when he goes on the ice. But if the outcome is good — and it's not always about winning a medal — you look at his journey, you go, 'I'm so glad you decided to stay in it.'"
Unfortunately for Abbott, his Sochi journey has been "down" so far — literally. The four-time U.S. champion, known for wilting in the biggest moments, fell twice in the team event and took a brutal crash on his opening quad in his short skate Thursday before finishing the routine. Like most pundits, Lipinski is tapping Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu or Canada's three-time reigning world champion Patrick Chan, who are 1-2 after the short, for the men's title.
As for the ladies, Lipinski believes Ashley Wagner, she of your new favorite Olympic meme, will validate her spot on the team after her controversial nomination following the U.S. nationals. A two-time U.S. champ, Wagner fell twice and finished fourth there, but was selected for the team over bronze medalist and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu because of her consistency the past few seasons.
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"It's unfortunate, but I believe they made the right decision," Lipinski says. "Ashley had a bad event, but she's one of our strongest skaters, whereas Mirai, yes, an Olympian, but she's had a bunch of struggles and all of a sudden broke out at nationals. That's great and in any other circumstance, she probably would've gone to Sochi. I know Ashley didn't want it to happen this way. But she changed her long program, which I think is an excellent decision. I've seen her in practice. The fire is definitely there."
Defending champ Kim Yuna of South Korea is still the favorite and would be the first skater to win back-to-back golds since Katarina Witt in 1988. And then there's another 15-year-old breakout: Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya, who jumped and twirled to the top of the short and free skates in the team event. She would be the youngest gold medalist since Lipinski, but she wouldn't break Lipinski's record.
"I'd be five days younger than she would be. We calculated it!" Lipinski says. "It's funny — the free skate is on the same [date, Feb. 20] as when I won. But if anyone were to beat it, I would definitely hand the torch over to her. I love her. I can't wait to watch her and call it!"