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U.S. duo dominates free skate

America's most recent figure skating rivalry lives on, with the current chapter of teenage sensations concluding in a golden Olympic ending for 15-year-old Tara Lipinski.

In the latest in a series of upstaging one another, Lipinski used a spectacular free program performance to leapfrog over U.S. Nationals champion Michelle Kwan in the standings and capture the women's singles gold medal Friday night at the White Ring arena.The 17-year-old Kwan, who had entered Friday night's competition as the event's top-ranked skater, claimed the second-place silver medal, and China's Lu Chen earned the bronze.

"I'm so happy - anything from now on, I'll be able to do it," said Lipinski, who becomes the youngest woman to win a figure skating gold. "I felt a little pressure going out there, but I knew I wanted this . . . And everything seemed to work."

Trading titles and swapping places in competition is nothing new in the ongoing Lipinski-Kwan saga.

Certainly the rivalry lacks the nastiness and the - pardon the pun - punch of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair that shocked the world and put figure skating not only in the headlines but in the hearts of Americans. Certainly not the best of friends but far from bitter enemies, Lipinski and Kwan have fostered an intense competition, an ongoing battle of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better."

What one has had, the other has wanted. And vice versa.

Kwan was the ice queen of women's figure skating in 1996, winning the U.S. Nationals, the World Championships and the Championship Series. The next year, Kwan took a second-place seat to Lipinski, who as a 14-year-old swept the three major crowns.

And after Lipinski captured the 1998 Championship Series crown (Kwan was resting a broken toe), Kwan reclaimed back national honors last month, with Lipinski the runner-up.

At the Nagano Games, Kwan took the initial lead following Wednesday night's short program, with Lipinski ranked second. Kwan drew out to start the final group of six medal contenders in Friday's free, with Lipinski next to last.

In her free routine, Kwan connected on her first two combination jumps - a triple lutz and double toe loop followed by a triple loop and double toe loop combo. Her most noticeable weakness came next, as she wobbled while completing a triple flip. All the rest of the tough segments - the triple loop, triple salchow, triple lutz and triple toe loop - came off without a hitch.

Kwan ended her routine with a death drop, scoring 5.7s and 5.8s on technical merit and straight 5.9s on presentation. Ranked first at the conclusion of her performance, she could only wait and watch the five remaining competitors.

Russia's Irina Slutskaya didn't challenge, her biggest fault being a hand-touch to the ice on a triple jump. Chen stumbled on two different triples and crumpled to the ice in tears after completing her routine, in part because of her expectations to be out of medal contention and in part because of a return to competition after an injury.

Besides taking an icy seat early in her routine, France's Surya Bonaly pushed the envelope by performing an actual backflip - an illegal maneuver that still wowed the audience. The judges responded in kind with low technical merit marks, including four scores at or below 5.0.

"I knew I couldn't do any better and I couldn't go forward because everybody skated well before me and I knew who was going to skate after me," Bonaly said afterward. "I just want to give nice things to the public."

Lipinski followed, connecting on her double axel, triple flip and triple lutz/double toe loop combination early. And after hitting a pair of triple loops right in front of the judges table, the 4-foot-10 Texas teen broke into a signature grin of glee. After a series of spin combinations, a triple flip and a spiral, Lipinski ended her aerial efforts with a triple toe, half loop and triple salchow.

Excited with her efforts, Lipinski sprinted on her toe picks to center ice, thrust her arms in the air and then continued to cover her face in disbelief at her own performance. When her scores - 5.8s and 5.9s in technical merit and 5.8s and 5.9s in presentation - were shown and she realized she had surpassed Kwan to win the gold, Lipinski nearly leaped straight out of the "kiss-and-cry" booth in exhilaration.

All that was left were the formalities - to let Russian Maria Butyrskaya skate and finish fourth, and then to bring the medalists back on the ice for the ceremonies, the medals, the bouquets and the U.S. national anthem.