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Tara and Todd just `friends' for time being

It would be a marriage made on ice, five or 10 years from now, Tara Lipinski and Todd Eldredge.

"Well," says Tara's mom, Pat, smiling and running the idea through her mind. "I'd be happy. He's super."Tara's father, Jack, laughed nervously, as any father of a 15-year-old would when contemplating the notion of his little girl getting married someday.

"He's like her big brother," Jack Lipinski said. "But you never know. Whatever makes her happy. He's been real supportive. They train so hard together. They have the same work ethics, the same ways about them. They don't give up. They drive themselves. They push each other. One watches the other."

Tara Lipinski joins teammates Michelle Kwan and Nicole Bobek in the short program Wednesday night as they begin their quest to give the United States a gold, silver and bronze in women's figure skating.

For Lipinski, the toughest part of the Olympics so far was watching Eldredge come unglued in the free skate and fall from third to fifth. She sat in the mezzanine, gripping pairs skater Jenni Meno's arm when he came on the ice, then buried her head in her hands when he singled his triple axel.

"She was so sad," Pat Lipinski said. "She had to go off by herself. And then she went down to Todd, and they spent time together at the rink that night. We left her and went back to our hotel. She called later but was very subdued that night, very quiet. So I didn't push her. I didn't want to talk to her about it. She had to face it on her own terms."

For the past couple of years, Lipinski and Eldredge have been inseparable, training together at the Detroit Skating Club with coach Richard Callaghan.

Eldredge, 11 years older, is teaching her to drive in his BMW as she practices with a learner's permit.

"I think she has dreams of driving that Ferrari of his," Pat Lipinski.

"Todd would let her," her husband said.

"Jack tried to teach her to drive," she said, then turned to her husband and added, "Todd, of course, is a little bit better at it than you are, Jack."

"Dads are always tough," he acknowledged.

Not so tough that he doesn't give his daughter plenty of space to grow up on her own, make her own choices, be herself. Instead of staying with her parents in their hotel, as Michelle Kwan is, Tara Lipinski is in the athletes' village.

"We asked her if she wanted to stay with us," Pat Lipinski said. "And she said, `No. First, I want to be with my team. Second, I want to support my team. And everybody else is living there. I want to be a part of it.'

"Will it be OK with your skating?" her mother asked. "She goes, `Mom, it'll have to be OK with my skating. That's the Olympics. Mom, I'm not going to nationals, I'm not going to Skate America. I'm going to the Olympics."'

She is making an exception right before the competition, staying at her parents' hotel to guarantee a good night's rest.

"It's been a phenomenal experience for her," said Jack Lipinski, an oil company executive in Houston who has been traveling weekends for years to visit with his wife and daughter in Michigan and, before that, New Jersey. "It's a growing experience, but it's also the ambiance of being there and representing the U.S."

That, he and his wife say, is more important than medals.

"If she takes nothing else from these games, if she gets nothing, but goes home and knows how to be in unity with people, that's all going to help her in the other world she's going into soon," Pat Lipinski said. "She's not going to skate forever.