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The Fallout: Olympic Figure Skating's Love Affair With Little Girls

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TARA LIPINSKI 1998
ASSOCIATED PRESS

I started figure skating in 1994, at the height of the Tonya and Nancy soap opera that hijacked the Lillehammer Olympics. Back then, I was 8, and elite, Olympic figure skating seemed a remote, adult world. A daydream. Like most little girls who've ever set foot in a pair of shiny, white ice skates, I daydreamed about going to the Olympics someday. After college, maybe: in 2010, when I'd be 24, or 2014, when I'd be 28.

1994 went down in history as figure skating's most sensationalized, media-crazed season. Yet, to me, 1994 stands out for a very different reason. It marks the end of an era, the age of sophisticated, full-bodied, adult athletes, of Dorothy Hamill, Katarina Witt, Debi Thomas and Janet Lynn: women with hips, breasts and high school diplomas. In 1994, during those tense weeks leading to Lillehammer, America's skating fans divided into teams Nancy and Tonya. Yet, neither woman took home the gold medal. 16-year-old Oksana Baiul won instead.

Floating over the ice as a fragile, feathered swan, Oksana had that quality, that nymphet aesthetic, which could seduce the skating world more quickly than a split-second double axel.

"And here she is, tiny waif of a thing," one television broadcaster exhaled, in awe, as Oksana took the ice for her short program.

"She's got those fawn eyes."

Oksana had hyper-extended elbows, the kind that bend backwards in elegant wingspan. She was decorated in full swan regalia. Her tulle skirt lifted around her, like a sail or a paper fan. Her plume neckline plunged between two halves of visible ribcage. Downy fluff shaped an illusory bust.

Baiul's victory ignited a teenaged Olympic champion streak. 16-year-old Sarah Hughes and 15-year-old Tara Lipinski soon followed suit.

I trained on the same ice as Tara Lipinski, shortly before she skyrocketed to skating super-fame in the late '90s. The University of Delaware Figure Skating Club was one of the most elite skating facilities in the country, a hotbed for future Olympians like Johnny Weir and Kimmie Meissner. While Weir didn't get his skating start until age 12, Lipinski exploded onto the international skating scene well before her 13th birthday. Pocket-sized, a compressed spring of potential energy, Tara torched older competition struggling through growth spurts and awkward puberties. If news media adored Oksana Baiul, it worshipped tiny Tara Lipinski, Jumping Dynamo, Spinning Top.

When I was 9, I read a skating reference book which revealed 12-year-old Tara Lipinski trained five hours each day, enjoyed a diet rich in spaghetti and marinara sauce, stood 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 68 pounds. When I put the book down, I stood on the bathroom scale for the very first time. I cried when my weight read 86 pounds instead of 68. I stared at the numbers long enough for my vision to blur and erase my shame. I coaxed, then begged the digits to trade places, but the numbers wouldn't budge.

My 10th birthday was riddled with grief. I wasn't a little girl anymore. At Delaware, there were 6-year-olds who could jump higher and spin faster than me. At 10, it felt like the ice was melting. At 10, I was washed up.

It's been 20 years since Lillehammer, 16 since Nagano, 14 since I quit skating and vowed never to look back. Miraculously, it turns out my life is not a Mayan calendar. I'm 28 and I'll never be an Olympic figure skater; yet, amazingly, I haven't dropped off the face of the earth like I feared I might when I was a little girl and life seemed hardly worth living if I couldn't stay little forever.

U.S. women's figure skating faced further controversy when the Sochi Olympic team was first announced. Reigning American ice queen Ashley Wagner performed poorly at nationals, missed the podium and, ostensibly, a trip to the Olympics. But she was named to the team, anyway, on the basis of her larger body of work. It's true: Wagner has largely outperformed her American teammates in the years since the Vancouver Olympics. But many figure skaters and figure skating fans alike are outraged that Wagner's Olympic dream should come at such devastating cost to Mirai Nagasu, who gave the performance of her life in Boston and won the bronze medal.

This is very likely 22-year-old Wagner's last shot at the Olympics. Figure skating is absolutely brutal on young women's bodies. Amidst the outcry at nationals, another "veteran" skater, 21-year-old Rachael Flatt, quietly retired from competition. "I'm a grandma right now," she told Colorado Springs Gazette columnist David Ramsey. The whole article is a rather depressing portrait of the athlete as an old woman. Even though Flatt is a student at Stanford, college almost seems a consolation prize after the dissolution of a celebrity skating career.

This was very likely 20-year-old Nagasu's last Olympic shot too. Like Wagner, Nagasu has an established track record: a national title, a 4th place finish at the Vancouver Olympic Games. So, while the rest of the country is divided over whether the U.S. should have sent Wagner over Nagasu, I'm angry with the USFSA for sending 15-year-old fledgling Polina Edmunds instead.

Watching Edmunds skate at this year's nationals was like watching Oksana Baiul and Tara Lipinski all over again. Edmunds is lithe with the same stick-thin physique of delayed puberty; she elicits the same onlookers' awe of unbridled youth. I've listened to Scott Hamilton narrate the U.S. figure skating nationals for over 20 years, but I've never heard him melt so much as when he whispered, of Edmunds, "Her arms are so delicate... the way she's able to use them... to extend her line...."

Edmunds finished second at this year's nationals and is, undoubtedly, a very talented skater. Her triple-triple jumps are flawless; she's being hailed as a jump technician, though her skill may have much more to do with how young and incredibly thin she is. I have little doubt Edmunds will perform well in Sochi, perhaps better than all the 20-something "grandmas" she's up against. And this is where I'm torn, because what's best for America's Olympic agenda is not necessarily the healthiest message to send its young girls.

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