By Susan Reed
Updated March 18, 1996 12:00 PM

Today’s figure-skating champions are tomorrow’s millionaires. Just look at 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. She now earns an estimated $2 to $3 million a year from endorsements, TV specials and performances with Stars on Ice. The millionaires’ club also includes former Olympians Oksana Baiul, Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton and Nancy Kerrigan. That’s why skating’s World Championships, which take place March 18 to 24 in Edmonton, Alta., will determine not only the best skaters on earth but also the soon-to-be-richest.

Many in the skating world date the gold rush to Jan. 6, 1994, the day an assailant, by arrangement with skater Tonya Harding’s husband, whacked Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan with a metal bar. The Harding-Kerrigan showdown at the Lillehammer Olympics a month later was the sixth-most-watched TV event of all time. World attention riveted on skating’s soap opera, says 1968 Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming, “brought us a whole new audience—and showed we’re not all made from cookie cutters.”

This year, with 200 hours of programming on the four major networks, figure skating ranks second in ratings behind pro football as TV’s most popular sport, and battle lines are being drawn between professional promoters and the U.S. Figure Skating Association—America’s amateur body—for control of the next generation of stars.

The first casualty was 1995 U.S. national champion Nicole Bobek, who was lured from training by a reported $90,000 offer to tour with Nutcracker on Ice last December. When an ankle injury aggravated during the tour, forced her to withdraw midway through the 1996 U.S. Nationals a month later, the USFSA denied her both an injury waiver and a spot on the three-woman team it is sending to the World Championships.

For the women who are going—Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski and Tonia Kwiatkowski—as well as male skaters Rudy Galindo, Todd Eldredge and Dan Hollander, the lesson is clear. “You can’t put a price on winning a World or Olympic title,” says Scott Hamilton. “It gives you credibility for life.”

A Winning Transition

When 14-year-old Michelle Kwan left the ice at the World Championships in Birmingham, England, a year ago, she knew she had just skated the performance of her young life. But, shockingly, the judges placed Kwan fourth. “The only thing I could think of was that she looked very young,” says her coach Frank Carroll. “The judges were looking for the ladies’ champion of the world, not the girls’ champion of the world.”

Team Kwan went into action. Ten months later at the U.S. Nationals, Kwan, wearing rouge, mascara and lipstick, her hair done in a sophisticated braided chignon, had been transformed from a teen into a temptress, and she became the youngest national champion since 15-year-old Peggy Fleming won the title in 1964. “I was ready for something new,” says Kwan. “It was the perfect time.”

For Kwan, now is not the perfect time to cash in on her skating prowess. “She was offered astronomical sums to do the Nutcracker,” says Carroll. “We said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

“If skaters really want to do what they were dedicated to doing, like getting to the Olympics, why should the goal change?” Kwan asks. “To make money and maybe not reach your goal? It’s not a difficult decision for me at all.”

World-Class at 13

Tara Lipinski is sitting cross-legged in a one-piece fluffy pajama suit, wearing pig slippers that oink when squeezed and eating a bowl of red grapes with whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and M&M’s. “I love grapes,” she murmurs. “And chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream.”

In the newly rented townhouse in a suburb of Detroit where she and her mother, Pat, have moved to be near coach Richard Callaghan—her father, Jack, remains at home in Sugar Land, Texas, where he is an oil company vice president—Lipinski is a typical 13-year-old. But when she laces on her skates, she gets that look, as her mother calls it—a steely gaze revealing the determination that earned her a surprise bronze medal at the recent U.S. Nationals. Enthuses her new agent Mike Burg: “She’s one of the most marketable skaters out there right now.”

Lipinski’s sudden celebrity is symptomatic of skating’s voracious appetite for future stars. A stand-out junior competitor, she became an overnight sensation in 1994, when she won a gold medal at an Olympic preparatory competition. Still, Pat Lipinski is anxious about pitting her only child against the world’s best so soon. Even Tara, for once, seems awed. “It’s so weird I’m right behind [Michelle Kwan and Tonia Kwiatkowski]. When I was standing on the podium, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve watched them on TV!’ ”

The Comeback Kid

The day before the U.S. Nationals, a reporter teased that, at 25, Tonia Kwiatkowski might be over the hill. So after her stunning silver medal performance, Kwiatkowski was ready. On her way to the postcompetition press conference, she ducked into a side room and emerged hobbling behind a walker. “See!” she announced in a geriatric quaver, “I fooled ya!”

In a sport increasingly dominated by pubescent prodigies, Kwiatkowski’s success is as refreshing as it is unusual. The only child of Phil Kwiatkowski, a heavy-machinery operator in Cleveland, and his wife, Corinne, a homemaker, Tonia started out prodigiously enough. Her second-place finish in the Cleveland Invitational Championships at age 8 impressed coach Carol Heiss Jenkins, the 1960 Olympic gold medalist. “She loved to skate,” says Jenkins. “That’s what was so wonderful.”

For most of her career, though, Kwiatkowski was a perennial also-ran. It didn’t help that, unlike most aspiring skaters, she became a full-time college student in 1990. “People had pretty much written me off,” she says. “I guess I showed them.” Now she wants to show them once more at the Worlds. “I look at myself as the Cal Ripken of figure skating,” she said last month with a grin. “I just keep coming back and giving the audience more.”


MEG GRANT in Miami, JONI H. BLACKMAN in Detroit, BONNIE BELL in Cleveland and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles