Lipinski retires over hip injury

Many 18-year-olds face difficult decisions. Where to go to college. Where to go to work.

Tara Lipinski had to think about major hip surgery and possible retirement from figure skating.

The wear and tear of her sport, from the pounding on landing all those triple jumps to the rapid shifts in positioning on spins, took a severe toll on Lipinski.

The 1998 Olympic gold medallist suffered a torn hip cartilage -- she isn't sure exactly when -- that progressively worsened until she underwent surgery in September.

"It's a huge shock when you sitting in bed and you can't get up to get out," Lipinski said. "I'd go to the mall and I couldn't walk more than 15 minutes and I'd have to sit down.

"When I was at Disney World, which is my favourite place, I couldn't go around the parks. I can't explain how bad it was.

"I thought it was just torn muscles. But right after the Olympics, when it got bad, we had MRIs and they said it would be just fine.

"But it shouldn't take seven months to come back from a torn muscle."

Lipinski at first thought the problem was in her back.

Doctors told her most athletes deal with the problem until the area has been strengthened by exercise.

She said she couldn't strengthen the back and hip any more, yet the pain remained.

Lipinski never really considered surgery.

After eight MRIs, still in pain, she visited Dr. Marc Philippon, the Florida doctor who operated on golfers Greg Norman and Steve Elkington and Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler.

Philippon discovered the tear and suggested immediate surgery.

"When Tara found out, she was devastated," said Elkington, who lives near Lipinski in Houston.

"Me, I was elated because I knew everything was going to turn around. I knew there was something wrong with my back and hip and it wasn't just me thinking it.

"And there was a cure for it."

Lipinski called surgery "the worst scenario."

But she also knew that without it, her skating career was over.

"The doctors said skating is the hardest of anything on the hip," she said, noting that while on tour she would perform several routines a night perhaps five times a week.

"It was going on way too long and I couldn't live in that pain and it would probably have shortened my career."

The operation on the torn labrum, which can take as little as 45 minutes, lasted 3 1/2 hours because Lipinski had cartilage overgrowing the bone and was developing arthritis.

Next came a long rehab -- except not too many 18-year-olds are patient enough to deal with being sidelined for months.

Lipinski was back on the ice seven days later, albeit merely for some stroking.

"The doctor was not happy," she said, "but he realized even if it hurts, I want to do it."

Less than a month later, at rehearsals for the Stars on Ice tour, Lipinski sat out, unable to handle even some of the simplest manoeuvres.

"All I did was cry," Lipinski admitted. "The thought of having to miss this year, Scott's last in Stars on Ice, that hurt so bad."

Although she had to withdraw from the World Professional Championships earlier this month -- she wasn't about to compete with no triple jumps in her repertoire -- Lipinski expects to be ready for the tour opener on Dec. 28 in Greensboro, N.C.

And she's grateful for having had the surgery.

"The doctor said maybe in a month, it would have locked on me," she said, shuddering at the thought.

"I couldn't imagine my life without skating."

By Barry Wilner