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Yamaguchi comes home with two other skating Golden Girls

Source: Star Tribune
Date: January 26, 2002
Author: Jay Weiner

It's been 10 years, and Kristi Yamaguchi still remembers her first glide across an Olympic ice rink. It's been 14 years, and Katarina Witt's face still grows intense as she discusses her commitment to victory and the Olympic spirit. It's been barely four years, and Tara Lipinski is happy to be in show biz and not the Olympic biz, being judged by smiles and applause, not by judges with emotionless faces and subjective scores to post.

All those flashing memories, all those decisive competitions, all those Olympic experiences mesh to form the heart and soul of "Target Stars on Ice," the sophisticated figure skating revue that will glide into Target Center on Tuesday night.

The show's title is "Gold: Winning Was Just the Beginning." And with these three, that's the stone cold truth.

Take Yamaguchi, who won her gold medal a decade ago next month in Albertville, France. With the next Winter Olympics then just two years away in Lillehammer, Norway, (that's when Olympic officials began to stagger the Winter and Summer Olympic years), Yamaguchi could have returned for a second gold medal at the 1994 Winter Games. She was only 22. She had the stuff.

"But I felt I had lived beyond what I ever dreamed of," Yamaguchi said by phone from Spokane, Wash. "I wouldn't have gained anything more by going back to the Olympics, except maybe a place in history, which I wasn't after."

She was, she said, "after artistic freedom," not the grueling routine of preparing six, seven, eight triple jumps and combination jumps that Olympic-level competition demanded.

She turned to "Stars on Ice," established six years earlier by 1984 men's Olympic gold medalist and longtime show-stopper Scott Hamilton. Hamilton has left the ensemble, although he still is a co-producer, but his absence allows the top of the marquee to be shared by three of the four most recent women's Olympic figure skating gold medalists, reaching back to '84, when Witt, then the symbol of East German seriousness and allure, won the first of her two golds. (Only 1994's Oksana Bauil isn't in the show.)

The "Stars on Ice" tour has become "an amazing vehicle," said Yamaguchi, for each of the gold medalists to reveal their distinct personalities: Witt, 36, mature, provocative, European to the hilt; Lipinski, still only 19, a bundle of energy, and Yamaguchi, 30, the performer's performer, on ice during the "Stars" show seven times -- "too much," she jokes -- including a return to pairs skating, which was once a competitive avenue for her.

Yamaguchi will be the center of attention in "Stars on Ice" this week because to a certain extent she's coming home.

For part of the year, Yamaguchi lives in Minnesota, in a house on Gull Lake, near Brainerd. Yamaguchi was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area. She met North St. Paul's Bret Hedican, a former St. Cloud State hockey player, at the '92 Olympics. He was a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Hedican went on to become an NHL standout -- he was recently traded to the Carolina Hurricanes -- and at the opening of a new arena in Vancouver in 1995, the two renewed acquaintances.

The rest is ice romance history. To get out of frozen buildings during the summer months, Yamaguchi and Hedican spend lots of time near Brainerd.

"It's a world away from the busy-ness of California," said Yamaguchi, who also has a condo in San Francisco and a house in Reno, Nev. "When I'm at the lake during the summer, I start getting that Minnesota accent down. I guess I'm part Minnesotan, part West Coast."

You betcha.

She, Witt and Lipinski are also part athlete, part actress, part vaudev ille, part MTV.

"Showgirls," said Witt during a recent visit to the Twin Cities.

Still, it's sports, and the Winter Olympics, that stamped them with the gold they still flaunt today.

"I remember that first practice, that first glide over the Olympic rings," Yamaguchi said of what flashes in her mind 10 years after winning the gold medal. The five rings were imprinted in the Albertville's arena ice. "Skating over them was like, 'Wow! this is really the Olympics!' I remember skating around and seeing [1988 Olympic competitors] Brian Boitano and Brian Orser at the side of the ice. I waved and thought, 'Oh, my God, it's my turn now!' " she screeched over the phone.

For Witt, there were three Winter Olympic moments. She won gold in '84 and over American Debi Thomas in 1988, with a cool perfection that revealed the athlete deep inside her. But in 1994, in Norway, with only remote chances of winning a medal, Witt returned to the Olympic stage with a purpose: "To use the art form to bring a message across."

That message was to remember the plight of Sarajevo, the city in what then was Yugoslavia where she won that '84 gold. Her Lillehammer performance will be remembered for its emotion and its rare nod to politics in a sport too often devoid of serious themes.

And Lipinski thinks not so much of the feeling of just four years ago in Japan, but the circumstances of her victory. Winning over the crowd in Nagano was easy; she was an eye-catching whirling dervish. It was those inscrutable judges, who hold the figure skating world in their hands, that seemed to have affected her psyche and drove her to the show circuit, rather than a return for a second gold medal. "I love the tour," Lipinski said by phone from Anaheim before a recent show. "It's a lot different from competition and it means a lot more. You're performing for the people, not just 12 judges. When you turn pro, you get to connect with the audience on a calmer level. It's hard to enjoy going on the ice when it's all up to the judges."

Now, those who judge pay good money to watch these Golden Girls skate to music by Janet Jackson and Ute Lemper and Beth Nielsen Chapman and Linda Eder, among others. Now, all that judges Lipinski, Witt and Yamaguchi is the marketplace -- and figure skating history.

"We don't sit there and talk about it," Yamaguchi said of the four gold medals they share. "Olympians just don't talk about it as much as people might think we do. That's because when you win a gold medal, it's just the beginning."