MUNICH, Germany -- In the scant months since she outjumped older rivals to become figure skating's youngest world champion, Tara Lipinski seems to have lost the ability to dazzle the judges.
When she was 14 and 4-foot-81/4, Lipinski was technically unrivaled at the 1997 worlds, flawlessly delivering seven triples in her long program, including the unique triple loop-triple loop combination.
Now 15 and just over 5-foot, Lipinski has been scored as low as 5.3 technically in two pre-Olympic appearances on the Champions Series circuit this season.
The gold medal hopeful gets another chance to measure her performance against international judging before the Olympic Games at Nagano, Japan, in February during the two-day Champions Series final starting Friday.
What seems to be hampering Lipinski is an old tendency to switch edges during takeoff on her triple-lutz, a flub that's been called the flutz.
What nags Lipinski, and her coach Richard Callaghan, is that the lutz she's delivered this season is no different than the one she delivered to become world champion.
"I think this year, Tara, probably being the world champion, is being scrutinized a little more," Callaghan said. "We don't have a problem with that. Quite honestly, I think she's skating way better than last year.
"Like Tara, I'm a little puzzled by some of the marks. But we're going to deal with it. ... We are dealing with it."
The Champions Series Final, featuring a small field of top-ranked skaters, is the closest thing to an Olympic preview.
With medal contenders Michelle Kwan, Alexei Urmanov, Russian pairs Marina Eltsova and Andrei Bushkov and ice dancers Anjelika Krylova and Oleg Ovsiannikov withdrawing because of injuries, some of the best rivalries won't be skated out until the games.
Even with a $50,000 prize for first place at the Champions Series Final, it's not Olympic gold.
"At this time of year, I think a skater should pick a competition based on what it's going to do for the skater," Callaghan said.
"I think if a win happened in the Champions Series, it's a confidence-builder. But ... a third-place skater shouldn't lose hope. The Olympics, or Worlds, are open to anyone."
The Kwan-Lipinski rivalry will get one pre-Olympic airing, at the U.S. nationals in three weeks.
At Munich, it's Lipinski against the lutz, first and foremost. Two competitors who fit the judge's image of a mature skater could be challengers for Lipinski: Germany's Tanja Szewczenko, in top form after an 18-month absence because of a viral illness, and France's Laetitia Hubert, who beat the world champ at Lalique.
Russia's Irina Slutskaya, the European champion, is making her Olympic trial here. After finishing fourth at nationals last week, she must beat Elena Sokolova or sit out Nagano.
Three-time world champion Elvis Stojko has turned up the difficulty in snazzy routines this season. The Canadian is unbeaten, but so is world bronze medalist Alexei Yagudin, who's hit three quads in competition this year, and has a balletic edge over Stojko.
American Todd Eldredge, silver medalist at the last worlds, will be looking for a confidence boost after finishing fourth at Lalique -- due largely to a dislocated shoulder.
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