June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

There’s no ice in sight, and her Olympic triumph is well behind her, but still all eyes are on Tara Lipinski. “Is this about Tony, the guy who got you arrested?” she demands of the girl sitting next to her on a Los Angeles set designed to look like a coffee shop. “What a creep!” From behind a row of TV cameras, Ed Scott, executive producer of the CBS soap The Young and the Restless, has a suggestion. “Let’s do it again,” he says. “I think you can do it angrier.” Lipinski gives it another go, sounding downright furious. Impressed, Scott wraps the scene and says, “Good, Tara, good!”

Another winning score for Lipinski, who is proving she can execute dialogue as gracefully as she double-axels. It was only 15 months ago that the figure-skating prodigy electrified her sport by upsetting Michelle Kwan to win a gold medal at the Nagano Olympics. But now, Lipinski is living another kind of dream—she has got a three-month gig playing Marnie, a feisty premed student, on her favorite daytime drama. “She makes it look so easy,” says Ashley Jones, who plays Megan on Y&R. “It’s as if she had been on the show for months.”

Lipinski’s acting adventure—her episodes begin airing June 2—is only possible because of her stunning decision, made in April 1998, to turn pro instead of chasing a second gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics—a move that freed her from the rigors of amateur training. “I accomplished my life goal, but now there are so many other things left,” says Lipinski, who turns 17 on June 10. “Going pro means I can get off the ice and relax, meet friends, have a teenage life.” Not that she is thinking of quitting her day job. Lipinski still practices 10 hours a week to stay in shape for Stars on Ice, a 62-city skating tour headlined by Scott Hamilton, which starts in the winter and will run about four months. “I love skating, and I could never give it up,” she says. “But doing things like this on the side is fun.”

For most of her life, there was no “side” to Lipinski’s routine. Born in Sewell, N.J., to Jack Lipinski, an oil-refinery executive, and Pat, then a Wall Street secretary, she put on her first pair of skates at 3 and trained every day, with only weekends off, for the next 13 years. In 1997, Lipinski’s powerful leaping helped her become, at 14, the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But after her Olympic victory, the pressure to stay on top began taking its toll. Last August, a tired Lipinski tore muscles and ligaments in her right hip during practice. “I heard a snap, and then she screamed,” says mother Pat, 48. “I’ve seen bad falls, but that was one of the worst.”

It took seven months for the injury to heal. “My biggest fear was, ‘What’s going to happen to my jumps?’ ” Lipinski says. But the respite seems to have strengthened her, and she feels she is skating better than ever. “I realized that if I take two days off,” she says, “I’m not going to lose my jumps.”

Still, she has no regrets about turning her back on amateur competition. The decision to go pro has made things easier for her mother, who for years lived with Tara in Michigan, where she trained with her coach, while husband Jack, now 48, held down the fort in Sugar Land, Texas. “I miss seeing her skate,” says Pat, “but I’m so happy at home. I garden, I go to luncheons, I have my life again.”

Tara, too, is savoring the chance to spread her wings. For now, she commutes between Texas and L.A., where she films Y&R. She’s completing her senior year in high school with a tutor and plans to eventually go to college. “I want to be a lawyer,” she says, “but I also love the sciences, so we’ll see.”

Lipinski isn’t dating, but that too is just around the corner. “I’m becoming more independent,” she says. “I’ve got my driver’s license, and I have a ’98 Corvette!” Young and restless she may be, but Lipinski isn’t allowed to drive on the freeway by herself just yet. “My mom is terrified,” she says with a laugh. “We’re working on that.”

Alex Tresniowski

Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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