By Maura Sullivan Hill, staff writer
When Tara Lipinski won gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, she was a mere 15 years and 255 days old, still the youngest individual Winter Olympic gold medalist ever.
“I watch Olympic athletes struggle through the next phase, and my age saved me a little bit,” Lipinski said in a U.S. Figure Skating media call on Dec. 13. “I was so young, not 23 or 24, and, at 15, I could have just started my life over, in a way, because of my age.”
She turned professional following her Olympic win, touring with Stars on Ice from 1999-2002 and competing in professional competitions and made-for-TV events.
“When I decided to go pro, it was a time when skating was at the height of its popularity, coming off ’94, with Tonya and Nancy. Everyone had their eyes on skating,” she said. “I had somewhere to put my competitive energy and focus, and I think that is where a lot of athletes feel a little lost, because their entire routine is gone [when they retire from Olympic competition]. I was lucky to have that transition to soften my life’s journey into the next phase.”
Still, like most 20-somethings, Lipinski said she wasn’t sure what was next, once she decided to step off the ice and away from full-time skating. It was while watching a World Championships that she set her next goal.
“I thought, ‘There is no better job than that,’ to be a part of your sport, but with a little less pressure,” Lipinski said. “Although I didn’t realize that live television adds a lot of pressure!”
During Lipinski’s skating career and for most of the 2000s, Dick Button, Sandra Bezic, Scott Hamilton, and Peggy Fleming made up the prime time figure skating broadcast team, whether it was the U.S. Nationals, Olympics, or World Championships.
“I didn’t know if it was really going to happen because, especially in figure skating, the commentators stay in their seats in the booth for many, many years. So, to go after that goal, it’s going to be another one of those things that’s almost impossible,” Lipinski said, much like her first goal of winning Olympic gold.
In her skating career, Lipinski said she had an “all or nothing” attitude, and she applied that same drive to broadcasting, working her way up by commentating skating events for Universal Sports and NBC Sports Network. In 2013, she teamed up with Johnny Weir and the duo’s commentary (and flashy, coordinating outfits) made a splash at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Along with Terry Gannon, Lipinski and Weir were the backup team in Sochi, providing commentary for the live broadcasts during the day, with the veterans on the prime time NBC broadcasts at night. But their commentary was such a hit among viewers that the trio was promoted to the prime time team for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Since Sochi, they have been providing commentary for the Grand Prix Series, U.S. Nationals, and the World Championships, as well as other events for NBC — including the Kentucky Derby, the National Dog Show, and the 2015 Super Bowl.
“Going into this Olympics in South Korea it feels very surreal [to be on the prime time broadcast team], but it’s also my 20th anniversary and feels like the start of this career that I’ve always wanted,” Lipinski said.
And when Lipinski and Weir take their seats in the prime time booth at the Olympics for the first time, they’ll have the support of one who came before them: Dick Button, the two-time Olympic Champion and legendary figure skating broadcaster.
“I think both of them are excellent, and together they make great music. I particularly like their costumes,” said Button.
The high praise from Button is especially meaningful to Lipinski, who recalls being starstruck as a competitor, knowing that Button and company were commentating her performance. He’s also an inspiration to her in this new role.
“I look up most to Dick Button. The way he brought his own personality into his commentating was something I always loved and enjoyed and it made it enjoyable for the viewers,” she said.
Lipinski will be in the broadcast booth for NBC at the 2018 U.S. Championships in San Jose from Jan. 3-7, 2018. She will also be honored as part of a U.S. Figure Skating celebration of Olympic anniversaries, alongside Button, Brian Boitano, and Peggy Fleming. Button is celebrating the 70th anniversary of his first Olympic gold medal in 1948, while it is the 30th anniversary of Boitano’s triumph in the 1988 Battle of the Brians and the 50th anniversary of Fleming’s victory at the 1968 Olympics.
Editor’s Note: Figure Skaters Online’s Gina Capellazzi and Claire Cloutier, along with photographer Leah Adams, will be in San Jose for the U.S. Championships. Follow Figure Skaters Online on Twitter (@fsonline), Facebook (www.facebook.com/fsonline), Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/figureskatersonline/) and on our website, www.figureskatersonline.com for coverage beginning January 2.