Tara Lipinski

329: Unfiltered – The Truth Behind Early Success

This week’s conversation is with Tara Lipinski, an internationally acclaimed figure skater who you might recognize from her performance at the 1998 Nagano Olympic games where – at age 15 – she became the youngest athlete to win an individual Gold Medal in the history of the Winter Games.

Tara is also recognized as the youngest competitor to win the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in 1999 at age 17, and the youngest-ever inductee into the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2006.

In the now 20+ years since her Olympic triumph, Tara has taken the same championship-style approach to her new role as a TV sports commentator for NBC and Universal Sports – she was the analyst for figure skating at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – where her depth of technical knowledge – and more strikingly – her deep authentic nature – was gripping.

Tara is an absolute legend and this conversation is about “the how” that sits underneath her  uncommon commitment to become her very best. I can’t wait for you to hear her insights, which hopefully will help you discover “that magic” – as she calls it – inside of yourself as well.

“Maybe this is just delusional, but as an artist or as a performer, an athlete, I always felt like I had this magic inside of me – this magical energy that only I can bring.”

In This Episode:

Passion, preparation and perfectionism

I’m a perfectionist, so I love having all the facts in front of me. I love doing a ton of notes and research and that’s just how I prepare for any commentary that I take on. I have every note known to man. It takes me hours and I usually use one or two of these hundreds of notes that I take, but I just like them there for comfort. I feel like the process of me doing that, it’s like I’m studying the character, I’m studying the athletes. So I feel like I connect with them, I know so much about them, those little facts kind of just sink into my subconscious. And then when I’m in the booth, I realize you have to throw all of that away and live in the moment. And for me, it almost feels like when I was an athlete, when I would get into that “zone” or into that groove, and I find myself feeling that same way or always hoping I get there. But just where I’m so authentic in what I’m feeling in the moment, that whatever I’m watching, whatever is happening in front of me, that passion is what leads everything else that I say.

Perfect is a feeling

My level of perfection may not even be perfect to most people out there, but I’m like, “I got that good feeling,” and the feeling, which is crazy, is, I was always a skater that relied on feeling. They’ll be like, “Oh, are you in your head, or are you feeling skater?” I always was feeling. Even as I commentate, there’s so much feeling where I feel in it and I feel this, and I think that’s what happens, too, when I have this training or repetition or wanting to do more. It’s more just like, I want to feel that feeling where it feels like I’ve hit the sweet spot.

Scar tissue from being a young athlete on the world stage

I feel like the way that I trained, the way that I was, the way that I thought has shaped me into the person I am today. I skated for 15 years, and then went on to skate for many more years after that, a huge chunk of my life. So, by the time I came out into the real world, I was 20-something years old. Skating was a huge part and it has affected me in every single way. I just think that dealing with that pressure, dealing with what I thought was life and death competitions, and like I said, the way that I trained, the way that… I wasn’t the skater that would go out and be like, “I love skating so much, I’m just breathing through the day and doing a little training.” To me, it was, “Today is so important. Today is a Monday, and it’s so important,” where it probably wasn’t that important. I think those things add up over time. Also, the pressure that I was under. I don’t know if that’s why I am a little bit more anxious, I am a little bit more of a worrywart. Everything that I take on, I have to work so hard at it. I have to just dive in and it encompasses me. I have just never been able to say, even when I try, like, “Oh, I’m going to balance it out a little bit.” I’m just never that person.

Being misunderstood

Anytime you’re in the public, lighted anyway, as an athlete, I felt probably more misunderstood than I do now, where I can really as an adult woman be able to voice what I’m saying and have confidence that most people should understand or get the essence or vibe of who I am. But as a kid in a sport where it wasn’t about Tara, it was about Tara the athlete, and who I was in that moment, and the rivalry that I was in, and what was good about me, what was bad about me, I think that also just be being 15 and being as good as I was and achieving the success that I did, just the media, people talk about that in a certain way, like, “Oh, this kid must be this, or that.” I think I read a lot about those things, where I felt misunderstood at the time, but I’ve always been someone who doesn’t really care that much what people think. I care a lot about doing a good job at things, but I don’t care so much about what people think. Like, if I’m a little misunderstood, I’m the type of person that I’m like, “Okay.” I can be okay with that.

Developing a thick skin

I was in this huge rivalry with Michelle Kwan and there would be a lot of headlines that were hard to read at 13, 14, 15 years old, and the internet, thank God, wasn’t at the place that it is now, but there used to be the message boards. I remember my dad… I didn’t like it. Then as a kid and as… That’s why I’m saying, I think as a teenager, that stuff bothered me more. But maybe during that time, it was like prepping me to actually have a thicker skin. But my dad always would just say like, “Oh, that’s good that they’re talking about you.” I’m like, “No, but they’re saying mean things.” He’s like, “Yeah, that still means you’re doing something right. So whenever you see something that’s negative, you need to take that positive, because they wouldn’t be talking about you if you weren’t doing something right. Once they stop talking, then you’re probably not doing something right.” I always thought about that.

Her relationship with skating

There wasn’t a great pressure from my parents for me to skate, but whatever I felt was a great pressure. It was life or death for me. If I was struggling with a jump, and to be honest, I think this is what was hard about being so young in the sport, is I didn’t have a lot of life experience and perspective, and everyone will be like, “Oh, you were so young, you probably didn’t know what was going on.” I actually think now, really reflecting on it, it was harder, because I didn’t have that life experience. Now, if something goes wrong, I’m like, “Ah, I have my husband, I have my mom and my dad, I have my health, I have these things.” When you’re 14, think about it, you go to high school, you break up someone. It’s like, “Oh, my life is over. I’m never finding another person, again.” That’s how it felt to me. That’s was my relationship with skating. I always say it, it was like a human relationship.

Her memory of the 1998 Olympic Games

I remember coming out of the spin and I come around the rink, and I pass the judges and the media are all above, and I’m going into my first jump, which was obviously an important part here. And I remember in that moment, I remember saying to myself, like that angry, you’re going to show them. You’re going to show them. You’re going to prove this. You are going to do this. It’s almost like… that feeling for me is when like you’re running or you have to go work out, you put on your playlist, but then you put on that pump-up song that feels good. And then you kind of just like, you’re like off to the races, it just like immediately energizes you and you kind of feel badass. That’s what that thought did of like, okay, we’re in it. And then I hit the first jump and I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything else. Everything else just, it just couldn’t have gone better.

The magic inside

Maybe this is just delusional, but as an artist or as a performer, an athlete, I always just felt like I had this magic too, this magical energy that only you can bring. So I feel like I used that, I liked that. But when I’m saying like, oh I’m going to show you or… to me, it was like, oh, Tara, you’re capable of overcoming these horrible nerves or there’s a magic in you that can compete. Or there’s a magic in you that can conquer this.

Leaving the Olympic skating circuit to “go pro”

It’s hard to understand now, but then I was skating at the height of figure skating’s popularity. It came off of ’94 with Tonya and Nancy, and there was just so much opportunity. So when I was growing up, I wanted to become an Olympic champion. But I also wanted to become an Olympic champion because I knew then I could go on Stars on Ice and tour with Scott Hamilton and Nancy and Kristi Yamaguchi. It was a much different time than now. If I skated now, I would’ve stayed in and kept competing, but then it was just par for the course. You know, I won Nationals, I won World, I won Olympics. I kind of skated the best I could have ever. I’m leaving all those performances. And when you win, at that time, that was the next step to go to. So it was actually easy. It’s hard to understand now because the skaters and a lot of the Olympians don’t have that opportunity. If I was in that boat, I would a hundred percent just have stayed in and kept competing because I wouldn’t be able to leave skating.

What did she miss out on in her formative years?

A lot of normalcy in many different areas of my life. I kind of gloss over, oh yeah, I was 20 something and I was still not experiencing life. I hadn’t taken more than four days off in a row at that point. So that meant I didn’t really ever go on a vacation for more than four days without skating. I didn’t go to normal schools. I didn’t have prom. I didn’t have a normal dating life. I was very behind socially in so many ways coming out of skating.

What would an older version of you say about your life right now?

Well, I hope that she’s like, “I’ve got some good news for you.” But I actually hope she would say – and I should preface it with, you’re floundering, you’re all over the place – but you’re doing it the right way. And you’re just going through it. You’re figuring out life. You’re wanting to be open and understand yourself and become a better version of yourself and it’s the way to life, essentially. In my head, that’s how I see life, so I hope she would say that. But I think even from what I’m learning is just, again, like the release of the perfectionist side of me is sometimes… maybe she would say that that freeing behavior will open up so much more to you, and so much more happiness, and so much more just living in whatever that moment gives you, whether it’s good or it’s bad. And again, I think that’s what I always have struggled with is trying to make things good. But I’ve even learned through what I’m going through now that even through the bad, life’s still good. And it’s okay to not be perfect. And it’s okay not to have the answer and it’s okay to not know what you’re doing.

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