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Perfect jumps put Lipinski on top of the world at 14

A month after losing her final baby molar, Tara Lipinski, 14, became the world's youngest figure skating champion Saturday.

In one year, she has leapt from 15th in the world to first, a feat that pushed up her Olympic dreams four years, from Salt Lake City in 2002 to Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

"I never expected it. Especially not this year," said Lipinski, who is one month younger than Norway's Sonja Henie was when she won the first of her 10 world titles in 1927.

"It's a big shock. But I love it."

Lipinski's seven perfect triple jumps lifted athleticism another few degrees in its ascent over artistry. But not without a fight.

Michelle Kwan, the 1996 world champion, battled back from a disappointing short program with unmatched grace and maturity.

Overnight, she vanquished the ghosts of a missed triple lutz that dropped her to fourth in the short program, nailing the jump on her first combination. She went on to hit five other triples, backing away from only one, an intended triple lutz, near the end.

Kwan won the long program, which counted for two-thirds of the scoring. But to defend her title, she needed Lipinski to finish third or lower.

It nearly happened.

The scoring was so tight the judges could not decide a clear winner of the long program. Lipinski, Kwan and Irina Slutskaya of Russia each received three first-place votes; Kwan prevailed because she had the greatest number of first- and second-place votes.

France's Vanessa Gusmeroli nearly buckled after her first jump, a shaky triple flip, but recovered and skated clean for the bronze.

Despite a hard fall in the short program, Slutskaya hit several high-flying jumps _ including a triple loop so high she held for a split second before entering her rotation _ to finish fourth.

American Nicole Bobek, burdened by the death of her coach, Carlo Fassi, Thursday, pulled back on nearly every jump, dropping from eighth to 13th. "I just couldn't get my feet under me out there. I tried but it was just too hard," she said. "My mind was racing and I tried but I couldn't do it."

Similar to the U.S. Championships and at the Champions' series at Hamilton, Ontario, the strongest rivalry was between Lipinski and Kwan.

Each time, the difference was in the strategy: Lipinski did it. Kwan thought about doing it.

"I'd been a scared chicken. I didn't attack," Kwan said. "But I got it back together in the long program. The chicken is gone. I killed it."

Lipinski has nailed the seven triples each of the past three competitions, establishing her as the sport's most reliable jumper.

She also hits jumps no other woman attempts, like the triple loop-triple loop nailed during the long program, or no man, like the triple lutz-triple loop that she has been hitting in practice. Her coach, Richard Callaghan, suggests she might be ready next year to attempt a quadruple jump.