TAKING IT ON THE CHIN : In Skating, There's Some Things That You Don't Figure On

Times Staff Writer

As she sat in the darkened dining room of her well-appointed home, in an upper middle-class neighborhood of Toluca Lake, Marjorie Chin gave in to her memories, which, lately, have caused her nothing but pain. She watched her daughter, Tiffany, glide effortlessly across the ice on the big-screen television, the elegant images from years past captured forever by a home video camera. Every so often, Marjorie's husband, Ed, came into the room to change the cassette. But not to watch. That always has been her role, to watch Tiffany. Marjorie often wonders whether it did her or Tiffany any good.

There was Tiffany at 9, one year after Marjorie bought her a pair of skates for $1 at a San Diego garage sale and already doing a camel spin that would make Dorothy Hamill look twice. There was Tiffany at 12, having advanced to her first junior nationals, smiling through her braces and more precocious than ever.

"That was the year everyone said she had gone too far, advanced too fast," Marjorie said. "But she wasn't fazed at all. One day, Carlo Fassi called and said he wanted her to be his student. He promised us everything."

Fassi, one of the world's most respected coaches, made similar calls in the past to Peggy Fleming, Hamill, Robin Cousins and John Curry, telling them they could have it all if they trained with him in Colorado Springs, Colo. All became Olympic champions.

"We didn't go," Marjorie said. If she regrets the decision, there was no trace of it in her voice.

There was Tiffany at 13, winning the world junior championship. There was Tiffany at 15, performing the most demanding triple jump, a triple axel. No other woman could do one at the time. On one of the cassettes, recorded during a practice in a near-empty rink, one person could be heard applauding Tiffany's triple axel. It was Fleming. In figure skating, that is the equivalent of being knighted by the queen.

"Tiffany was such a happy girl," Marjorie said.

There was Tiffany at 16, still ahead of schedule, finishing second to Rosalynn Sumners in the national championships and earning a berth in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. "Sumners Wins, but Future Belongs to Chin," read the headline in The Times. There was Tiffany in Sarajevo, finishing fourth but serving notice. "For Tiffany Chin, Life is Sweet--and 1988 Is Bright," read another headline.

The headlines never again were so glowing. Tiffany won the national championship in 1985, but she skated less skillfully and with less flair than the year before. There was no way to know it then, but she never again would be as good as in 1984. In 1986, she was third in the nationals, and although she finished third in the world for the second straight year, it was apparent the judges no longer were enamored of her. Last year, she was fourth in the nationals and did not earn a berth in the world championships.

Confronted with the probability that she would not make the U.S. team for the Winter Olympics next month in Calgary, Canada, Tiffany, 20, announced her retirement in November from competitive skating and signed a seven-figure contract with an ice show.

Ed Chin entered the room to insert another cassette, but Marjorie waved him away. "I don't want to see any more," she said. "Over the years, all the girls wash out. I didn't know mine was going to, too. If we hadn't ruined her, the gold medal would have been hers."

Frank Carroll was polite but firm in refusing to answer questions about Tiffany. He was her coach early in her career at the Pickwick Ice Arena in Burbank and again at the end, the middle having been entrusted to others.

"Oh God, I can't comment about Tiffany's demise in skating," he said from his weekend home in Palm Springs. "A lot of it would be very painful to Tiffany if it came out. The last thing I want to do is cause her more pain. I love Tiffany. She's a wonderful kid. But I think she's spent a lot of time being depressed and very unhappy. She's the only one who knows the truth."

Yes, Tiffany said when Carroll's remarks were repeated to her, she was depressed at times.

"It wasn't only when I was skating bad," she said. "Sometimes it was when I was skating well, too. It's not always such a happy sport. You always try to make everything so pretty and graceful and easy and joyful, and a lot of times it's not."

But no, Tiffany said, she does not know the truth--not one single, solitary truth. She does not know why East Germany's Katarina Witt or the United States' Debi Thomas or some other ice princess will wear the gold medal in Calgary instead of her. But she has theories, and if you took a multiple choice test and answered "all of the above," you would not be too far off.

The easy way out for Tiffany would be to blame the muscle imbalance, which her mother noticed in the year after the 1984 Olympics. Hardly anyone else noticed it, not even Tiffany at first. There was controversy when Marjorie held Tiffany out of training for three months in 1985, noting that her daughter could not even cross her legs, much less skate like a champion. Marjorie eventually was proved correct. The imbalance affected the muscles in Tiffany's hips, knees and ankles. As if that alone did not diminish her skating skills, the amount of time she spent in therapy made it impossible for her to train properly. End of story?

"I guess you could say that," she said. "But we will never know, will we? It was definitely a reason. It was pretty visible when I was on my fanny on the ice. But it might have been something else. Maybe I just didn't have the concentration or the endurance or the emotional toughness. Maybe I had too much success too soon. Who knows?

"So when people ask, I give them each one of the reasons. They say, 'Can you combine that into one sentence?' No, thanks. I'd rather not bring it up."

But Tiffany agreed to discuss it in a series of interviews at her family's home this winter. Sometimes she was in the room without her mother. Sometimes her mother was in the room without Tiffany. Sometimes they were together. They said they were willing to delve into the past for two reasons. One was to warn other families about the pitfalls on the path to developing a world-class skater. The other was to let everyone know that the Chins survived, a little worse for the wear but moving ahead.

What emerged was a story about a sport that devours its young, a mother who fought back in an attempt to save her daughter and still almost lost her, a clash of cultures that makes it difficult for Chinese-American parents to raise their children in the United States, and, ultimately, a teen-age girl who, caught in the cross fire, withdrew, cutting her emotional losses but failing to realize her considerable potential.

People within the sport say Tiffany could have been the best figure skater the United States has ever had, combining an artistic, graceful style with gravity-defying jumps and spins like no one else has before or since. At 16, she already had a spin named for her, the Chin Spin.

In a sport where appearance is vital, Tiffany, her dark Oriental features setting her apart from the other women, had all the required elements. But there also was an inner beauty that she communicated to audiences when she skated. While Witt is flirtatious, and Thomas is exciting, Tiffany was mesmerizing.

At home, she only occasionally reveals glimpses into that side of her personality. She is polite and smiles easily, but she displays little emotion. She spoke of becoming desensitized. "What is a person going to be like, " she said, "if all her life she doesn't learn to give?"

Marjorie, 48, is the flip side of her daughter. Born in mainland China, the daughter of an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's army, she moved to Taiwan when she was 11 and came to Los Angeles 10 years later in 1960. She married Ed, whose parents immigrated to the United States when they were young from the Canton region of China. Ed was born in Oakland and has a Ph.D in engineering from Berkeley.

Always looking for investment possibilities, Marjorie is an astute businesswoman with a masters degree from USC. Her interests range from real estate to a taco restaurant to vending machines. She is opinionated and outspoken. But there is a sensitive side to her, the side that sings Chinese operas, that comes rushing to the forefront whenever she feels pain. Marjorie cries not for Tiffany's lost medals but for her loss of innocence. "Tiffany was such a sweet, strong girl when she was young," Marjorie said. "But to avoid getting hurt, that beautiful person does not dare to come out. She curled up."

Marjorie, however, has retained her sense of humor. She said she told herself when she became a skating mother that she would not allow herself to become broke, crazy or fat. She estimated that she and her husband spent $200,000 on Tiffany's career. For a while, she considered seeing a psychiatrist. But, she said, she never became fat.

Was it worth it?

"I don't think so," Tiffany said. "There's the beautiful side of skating. That's what you see at the Olympics for maybe a moment, a split second. I can't even describe it, the feeling is so overwhelming. I think it's a cleansing feeling, pure and gentle yet strong. I just wish everything about skating was so beautiful.

"I wouldn't want my kid to be an ice skater. No way. I'd want my kid to grow, to go to college, to become a whole person. There's so many traps in skating. Once you're ensnared, you can never find your way out."

When Tiffany was 12, rumors spread she was mistreated by her mother.

After receiving anonymous telephone calls from the rink where Tiffany trained in San Diego, the police investigated and concluded there was no evidence to support the accusations. Marjorie said she never discovered who made the calls, whether there was more than one person making the claims or even what the claims were.

But she blames them on skating mothers who were jealous of Tiffany's success, the same mothers whom she said made anonymous post-midnight telephone calls and sent hateful unsigned letters to her home and spread gossip that she had beaten Tiffany and threatened her with a knife.

"The rumors started at the same time that Tiffany was successful enough to go to Nationals," Marjorie said. "It got to the point that no matter what I did, it was misinterpreted. I straightened out the whole thing with the police, but, after that, I started to have problems," Marjorie said. "I didn't want to go to the rink. I didn't want to be a skating mother. I didn't want to be connected with people who were so shabby. One day, when I was crying in bed, Tiffany came to me, kneeled down and said she was sorry. She said she would quit if I wanted her to."

Instead, the Chins pressed on. Marjorie began commuting four days a week between San Diego and Burbank, 260 miles round-trip, so that Tiffany could work with Carroll. Still in her pajamas, Tiffany slept in the back seat while Marjorie drove her to 6 a.m. lessons and then back to San Diego for afternoon elementary school classes. Feeling that she needed to spend less time on the road and more time with her two younger children, Marjorie persuaded her husband before Tiffany's 14th birthday in 1981 to take a job as an engineer at TRW in Redondo Beach and move the family to Toluca Lake, a short drive from the Burbank rink.

The gossip followed them, as Marjorie had known that it would. Even before they moved to Toluca Lake, she said she was at the rink in Burbank one morning when she overheard two women. "They were talking about a girl who was a beautiful skater but whose mother asked her to practice 17 hours a day, who didn't go to school, who slept at the rink, whose mother poured soft drinks on her to wake her up, who had no personality," Marjorie said. "I wanted to see this girl. When she came out onto the ice, these ladies said, 'There she is.' It was Tiffany."

Less than two years later, even though the Chins moved to Toluca Lake because it was near Carroll's operation at the Burbank rink, Marjorie decided a change was necessary and began taking Tiffany to another coach, John Nicks, at a rink in Costa Mesa, an hour drive from their home.

"A month before we left, Tiffany decided she didn't want to go to the rink any more," Marjorie said. "She talked to Frank. She said that whenever the other mothers were around, they said ugly things about her mother and father. He told her to stay on the other side of the rink. She even dressed in a separate room. But they got her. One woman confronted her and told her she liked Tiffany but couldn't cope with her crazy parents. That's why we left."

Considering Marjorie's Chinese heritage, one might assume that the barbs directed toward her were racially motivated. But she said she does not believe that.

"Whoever's on top is going to be criticized," she said. "It wasn't unique. Many mothers in skating have to endure this."

But Marjorie said she believes there is a cultural gap that created misunderstanding. In 1986, the Chinese Women of America named Marjorie mother of the year. But she said many American parents did not understand her Chinese approach to discipline. She said she was demanding, particularly in the areas of education and work habits on the ice. She admitted that she was sometimes visibly agitated when Tiffany slipped in either area. On several occasions, Marjorie publicly scolded Tiffany.

"Where I come from, a mother's role is respected," Marjorie said. "If we see a mother in China get mad at a child, we normally presume that the child did something wrong. We're not so quick to presume that the mother is wrong.

"I felt I owed it to my husband that his money was well spent. I owed it to Tiffany that she do something with her talent and also that she become educated. Under those circumstances, what did I do wrong?

"A good mother in China is not afraid of adding pressure. She is praised because she will not miss the opportunity to instill values in her children. Here, when you say that, people say OK. But when you do something, you're called pushy.

"Here, it's a good idea to encourage children to be independent. I don't know if it's gone too far or not. But I think it's gotten to the point where a youngster, and this happened to Tiffany, feels she is not independent if she listens to her parents. I'm not bitter. I'm not trying to provoke anyone. I'm not saying that your way is not the best way. All I'm saying is that it's not the only way."

After Tiffany won the national championship in 1985, she decided it was time to make the break from her mother, if not physically, then mentally and emotionally. She was 17 and a celebrity, attracting crowds of admirers to her practices and marriage proposals in the mail from men she did not know. She even had a racehorse named after her.

Perhaps, she thought, her mother did not know best. While Marjorie stressed education, others said she would never need it. While Marjorie said Tiffany was not working hard enough, others patted her on the back. While Marjorie said Tiffany should spend hours in therapy to correct her muscle imbalance, others doubted it existed. It was easier, Tiffany said, to believe others.

Others, she said, included her coaches, other skaters' coaches, other skaters' parents, skating officials and the media. The Chins often refer to these others simply as "them" or "they." As if it is not difficult enough for skaters to survive the rumors and innuendo that are created and embellished by some of these others, skaters also have to overcome their advice.

As Tiffany sat on the couch in the living room and recalled those days, her mother listened intently.

"I think my judgment was messed up sometimes, a lot of times," Tiffany said. "I was not strong enough to go against the tide. I caved in. People would say, 'Your mother is this, your mother is that. She's too hard on you.' I would sometimes even agree and think they were right. I started to question those I shouldn't have questioned, like my mom and my coach. I wish I could take that back.

"I know I should have reacted differently. I didn't understand why there had to be so much bickering, why it had to be so verbal. I just wanted it to stop. I didn't care whether it was my fault, my mom's fault, their fault. It was just too much for me. I closed my eyes to it. What I should have done is helped sort things out. For my mom, it was a one-way battle. It was her against all those people."

Marjorie interrupted.

"Do you think if she had gotten angry and told people to stop picking on her mother that it would have changed anything? To have my daughter sit there and not say a word . . . even at this point, if I have any problem with our relationship, it's this part. It wasn't fair to me."

Tiffany: "You have to be really focused. As soon as you start paying attention to the exterior, you're on the outside looking in. I just tried to stay focused."

Marjorie: "I'm just surprised at how peaceful my daughter's reaction was to this. If it was me, I wouldn't have taken it. I wouldn't have."

Tiffany: "It's more of a personality thing. We're two different personalities. If my mom gets into an argument, she voices her opinion. I tend to forget it and move on. In skating, you have to be like that because there's so many distractions. I got used to having so many people bickering and complaining and starting rumors that it made me immune. The first couple of times it happened, I threw a fit and couldn't skate. I was told, 'You have to skate.' I learned that you skate best if you're happy and you're happy only if you ignore everything that is going on."

Marjorie: "I wonder how much you care, I really do."

Tiffany accepted her mother's emotional response impassively. But after Marjorie left the room, Tiffany said she had recently realized that her mother was right.

"I knew it all the time," she said. "It's just that sometimes I didn't want to admit it. Sometimes we had conflicts. Sometimes I didn't approve of the way we were going about things. She was so passionate in her feelings. I didn't think I could be that passionate. So I went into my own little world and said, 'I don't trust anyone any more.' But that was unfair to her. Everyone was so unfair to her."

Later, Marjorie was told of Tiffany's comments.

"Now, she listens," Marjorie said. "But when she had their support, she chose to deny what I had to offer. So many people, some of them well-intentioned, interfered, put Tiffany on a pedestal, added to the confusion and set her up for failure. But when she failed, they turned away. They left me to put my daughter back together again."

Everybody was talking about the Olympics. So I went home and asked my mom what it was. She asked why, and I said, 'Everybody talks about it. It must be a beautiful place.' I didn't know it was a competition. I thought it was a place--like paradise or something.

--Tiffany Chin in a 1984 interview, recalling a conversation when she was a novice skater.

Tiffany's amateur career ended unceremoniously, with her brushing the ice off the seat of her sequined costume inside a wooden-domed arena in Tacoma, Wash., at the 1987 national championships. If 1988 had not been an Olympic year, if she had not been tempted by one more glimpse of paradise, she said she might not even have tried to make it work again.

Some days, it worked so beautifully that she felt as if she were 16 again and skating circles around everyone. But there were more days when she felt as if she were just skating in circles. Exhausted from the effort, physically and emotionally, she was unable to generate the same enthusiasm she had in years past. Her coach, Frank Carroll, said nothing, letting her figure it out for herself. When Holiday on Ice offered her a seven-figure contract to be the star of its Oriental tour, she knew the time had come to turn professional.

Holding up an imaginary newspaper, she read the headline.

"Tiffany Chin in Calgary; Destiny Had It So."

She smiled wistfully.

"But when I took everything into consideration, it was obvious that it wasn't going to be," she said. "I have a lot of good memories from skating. There's been a lot of things that I can learn from it. But on the other hand, I'm glad I'm getting away from that other side, that dark side. I hope that in professional skating, the goal is just to skate and entertain the audience. In a sense, that's more pure."

Between tours, she said she plans to continue her education. She is completing work for her high school diploma and has taken a couple of college-level courses at Glendale College. She said she hopes that she will be accepted to UCLA or Boston University. Her sister, Tammy, 18, is a freshman at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Her brother, Michael, 12, is in an elementary school for gifted children.

"Thank goodness for our Chinese culture," Tiffany said. "If not for that, maybe we would have gone our separate ways. But I'm still close to my family. Now, I'll do the show, and I'll get my education, and I'll have my own life afterward. A lot of people who have been in skating can't say that."

One day recently, over lunch in Chinatown, Marjorie was asked to look five years into the future and picture her daughter.

She pondered the question for a few moments before she answered.

"This is what I hope," she said. "I hope that she is strong enough to face this year, to accept that she's an ordinary girl who once had a great career. I hope she gets into a good college. She wants to major in mass media, become a television announcer. Maybe she'll be another Connie Chung. By the time she graduates, she will be a woman. She will settle down and get married.

"Then I can look back and say, 'None of this influenced her at all. She's a happy person.' That is what I hope. But I'm not quite sure yet if she will be happy. Check with me in five years."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°