COMEBACK AT TIFFANY'S : Young Skater Is Determined to Prove That Her Best Days on Ice Haven't Already Melted Away

Times Staff Writer

It was, in her own words, "a panic situation." She was out of shape and out of sorts. A muscle imbalance in her legs--and her mother's insistence that she do something to correct it--had forced her off the ice for more than three months. She hadn't skated competitively in almost a year.

And yet, when she was knocked from her throne last year as queen of America's figure skaters, Tiffany Chin was dumbfounded.

"It was the first time I had fallen short of a goal," she said. "I couldn't even believe it for the longest time. I thought, 'This has got to be a dream.' "

More like a nightmare.

A fourth-place finisher as a 16-year-old at the Sarajevo Olympics and the defending U.S. champion, Chin was America's skating darling. She was expected to glide right through to the 1988 Calgary Games, enhancing her reputation and popularity on the way.

Carol Heiss, who won the Olympic gold medal in 1960, said she had never seen an athlete so physically suited for skating.

But there stood Chin last February on the medal stand at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, looking up at the new national champion, Debi Thomas of San Jose, and the runner-up, Caryn Kadavy of Erie, Pa.

She had slipped all the way to third place.

She knew she hadn't been ready for the competition, and she admittedly had "pooped out" in the long program. But still, as she said, "When you're used to always getting what you want and then you don't get it, it comes at first as a shock."

But instead of knocking her down, the painful memory has served as an inspiration.

"That has kept me going through a lot of times where I would have said in the past, 'No, no, I don't want to do this,' " she said. "I'd think about nationals and say, 'Oh, yes, I do want to do this.' "

Six weeks later, she finished third again--but this time at the World Championships.

In spite of all that she'd been through--including the long hours of tedious, grueling exercises to build up long-dormant muscles in her inner thighs and calves--Chin had retained her world ranking.

She wasn't up and coming anymore, but neither was she over and out. Thomas may have taken her title, but her spirit remained.

"I always thought, if I lost my title, I would just be devastated," Chin said. "I would not be able to get through it. I had read all these stories of people who had pushed through it, but I didn't think I could.

"But I learned that life does not end. Life goes on and I will be 21 and 24. And 30, someday. That, itself, has given me a lot of strength. It makes the hard times much easier to go through because I know it's just a phase and I will get through it. It's created an emotional stability."

This week, in the national championships in Tacoma, Wash., Chin hopes to make it all the way back.

One night last month, the Chins moved Tiffany's exercise equipment off to one side of the living room in their Toluca Lake home.

Marjorie Chin had made an appointment for her daughter to meet with a group that wants Tiffany to star in a movie next year with pop singer El DeBarge.

"They want her to play his girlfriend," Marjorie said. "But Tiffany says to me, 'I don't know if I want to play somebody's girlfriend before I'm somebody's girlfriend in real life.' "

A problem, to be sure, but Tiffany has weightier concerns.

Special exercises to correct the muscle imbalance in her legs have become a regular part of her daily routine.

It's to the point now where she accepts that it will be this way until her skating career has ended.

"She's not completely over everything," said her coach, Frank Carroll. "Her body still is pretty twisted, but she's working on it."

It's a matter of re-educating every muscle from her hips to her toes. Ten years of skating had left her knock-kneed and pigeon-toed to the extent that something as simple as crossing her legs had become impossible.

Skaters first jump, then rotate when executing those midair spins, and Chin suggested last year that she was anticipating the rotations and thus using different muscles in the jumps, causing some muscles to strengthen unnaturally and others to atrophy. As she continued to skate--and compensate for the imbalance--she only aggravated the condition.

"At a certain point, I couldn't move my knee, and the motion was limited," she told the New York Times. "But I had thought that was normal. And when they pushed on some muscles I thought were strong, my leg went right down. I was told, 'You're supposed to be jumping off those muscles.' "

Fearing that the condition could become arthritic, her mother pulled her off the ice for three months in the summer of 1985.

The exercise regimen followed. It still occupies up to three hours a day of her time.

She has corrected the imbalance to the point that she can now cross her legs, but her mother suggests that most of what she accomplishes through exercise is negated when she skates.

Still, the exercises don't require the same intensity they did in the beginning, and Carroll said his protege is better adjusted--indeed, much happier--than she was a year ago.

"She seems to be coping with it a lot better," he said. "She seems to understand that she's got her problems and that she's got to go about it very businesslike and not get all that emotional about it.

"No one really cares how much trauma is going on when they're holding up the marks for you. Maybe the whole world wants to cry for you, but those judges are sitting there giving marks and analyzing what you're doing, not what you've gone through.

"Really, it's a cold-hearted business we're in, so we've tried to take the emotions and throw them in a trash can."

Chin seems almost grateful for her traumatic experience.

"I feel I gained a lot from it," she said. "Not just through the physical process, but emotionally, I've grown. When you think about it, up until the age of 17--all that I'd done--and I never had one setback. I never had a chance to grow.

"I think, emotionally, if nothing had happened, I'd be in big trouble. If I continued to win and I never had to go through an emotional struggle, the Olympics would be a shock. All of a sudden, pressure. Real pressure. And that would be very, very hard. I don't know if I'd be able to handle it."

Said Marjorie: "My daughter was praised all over for her dedication, but she didn't really know what dedication was all about. She was doing so well because she was so extremely talented."

Is she all the way back?

"I can do a lot of things that I could do when I was a lot younger that I haven't been able to do for a long time," she said.

In spite of her problems, she said she lost confidence in herself only periodically. "I was never knocked down all the way."

This year, she feels none of the pressure she experienced a year ago. Last year, she said, she had no stamina, no confidence, very little training time behind her and hadn't competed in 11 months.

Still, if she had won the long program, she would have won the World championship last March at Geneva, Switzerland.

In October, she won an international competition in Portland, Me.

And this year? "It's a completely different situation," she said. "I'm not defending my title. I'm in much better condition. I've skated all year 'round. I've already done a competition. Stamina-wise, I'm miles ahead of where I was last year."

But has Thomas, the premed student from Stanford who won the World championship last year, passed her by?

"I would not say that," she said.

She and Thomas are friendly, she said, and even roomed together on a European tour after the World Championships.

"We're not watching each other, going: 'What's she doing now? What's she thinking now?' " Chin said. "We're not planning or plotting against each other. I don't think. . . .

"I can only do the best I can do, but I'm pretty confident that that will be enough."

When she skates, Carroll said, Tiffany lights up an arena.

"Nobody moves like Tiffany," he said. "Nobody has Tiffany's posture. When she's skating to music, she's gorgeous to watch."

And her former coach, John Nicks, said that if Chin continues to improve, "She's the best in the world. No doubt."

In Carroll's mind, it's important for Chin to at least maintain her world ranking this year. But her best year, he said, will be 1988.

"She's improved and gotten her head together," he said. "But I think next year should be the year when she shines.

"Dorothy Hamill was somebody who was the best in the world for years, but she was never World champion until the Olympic year, when she put it together and said: 'This is my year. It's time for me to shine.' And she did."

Carroll thinks the same thing can happen with Chin.

"She's very much a fighter," he said. "I think it's from what she's gone through. I think it's made her tougher. I think when the chips are down, Tiffany's very strong."

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