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November 04, 1990|LIBBY SLATE

As an ice skating champion, Tai Babilonia is no stranger to TV cameras.

Her amateur accomplishments with partner Randy Gardner-including the 1976-80 U.S. Pair titles and the 1979 World Crown-were chronicled by ABC Sports. The team's last-minute withdrawal from the 1980 Winter Olympics, due to Gardner's groin injury, was broadcast internationally.

As professionals, the duo has not only skated on TV, but has had roles in "Hart to Hart" and other series.

None of that, however, prepared Babilonia when the cameras rolled in August, in Toronto, to film a television movie about her life-a tale not only of the thrill of victory but the agony of alcoholism, drug abuse, broken love affairs and finally, a suicide attempt at age 28. The NBC movie "On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story" airs Monday.

"After the first week, I was ready to come home," recalled Babilonia, now 31, who was on the set as a consultant and with Gardner, 32, doubled the skating sequences.

"I panicked, freaked out, called my boyfriend and my manager and told them I was coming home. They calmed me down. I'm glad I stayed. It was very therapeutic, though after the month (of production) was up, I was drained."

The film, which stars Canadian actress Rachael Crawford as Babilonia and Charlie Stratton as Gardner, William Daniels as their coach John Nicks and Denise Nicholas as Babilonia's mother Cleo, depicts the emotional roller coaster Babilonia rode before, during and after the 1980 Olympics.

As the then World Champions, she and Gardner were facing a heavily hyped contest for the Olympic Gold Medal with a Soviet pair who were the defending Olympic Champions.

Unbeknownst to Babilonia, though, Gardner had reinjured a groin muscle, requiring a last-resort shot of xylocaine, which deadened the pain but also numbed his leg. During the pre-competition warm-up period, Gardner fell repeatedly even on simple jumps, leaving the pair no choice but to withdraw. Babilonia blocked her own emotional pain and, in the ensuing years on the road with Ice Capades and other professional shows, found an escape in amphetamines, heavy drinking, and romances with such performers as Andy Gibb and Christopher Penn.

In September, 1988, she swallowed sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, then became frightened and phoned her mother. She has since been in therapy and last year began performing occasionally with Gardner.

Scheduled during the critical November ratings sweeps, the film is obviously intended to appeal to viewers other than skating fans. "What I'm trying to say in this movie," Babilonia said, "is: 'Everyone goes through their ups and downs. Everyone hits rock bottom at some point, or near it.' The message is, 'If I can get through it, so can you.' It's as simple as that."

There were some days, Babilonia said, that she could not bring herself to visit the set. "I knew I just couldn't watch the taking of the pills, the ambulance scene, Randy taking the shot. But other days, I was fine."

Crawford, 20, who has appeared on Canadian TV and was on Oprah Winfrey's "Brewster Place," had not heard of Babilonia when she was chosen to portray her. "I didn't follow sports much," she said. "But even if you don't know who anybody is, when you watch the (real-life) tape of the Olympics and see Randy falter, it's heartbreaking."

The film is almost as much Gardner's story as Babilonia's, of course: It was he who suffered the trauma of the injury and whose own career was jeopardized by Babilonia's subsequent travails. Ten years later, how did it feel to recreate that awful night in Lake Placid?

"It was physically hard, first of all, because I fell on my bum a lot. The first few times, it was OK, but then I got really tired and the emotional drain set in," said Gardner, who staged and directed the film's skating sequences. "As much as I tried to separate it from real life, it was still hard, there was still that connection."

As with most TV projects based on actual events, the teleplay, by Brian Ross, is basically factual, with some situations fictionalized. In one scene, for instance, a frustrated Babilonia tosses her skates over a bluff into the Pacific Ocean; in reality, she dumped them in a sewer. On the other hand, there are such authentic details as exact copies of the costumes the pair wore for the World Championships, and a replica for Crawford of the half-moon necklace Babilonia has worn for a decade.

Two years and one film after her suicide attempt, Babilonia has no specific performing plans, but would like to skate again; she also wants to publish a book of her poetry and continues to market the line of jeweled butterfly pins and barrettes.

"I'm getting there slowly, taking things one day at a time," she said. "I don't think I could have done it without the support of my family, and of course Randy and the fans-the letters I received, and still get, were incredible."

Indeed, the same partnership which inadvertently caused her such grief has also been her mainstay, Babilonia added. "Randy and I have been together 22 years now. That's a long friendship, a lot of trust. It's very special. Out of everything I've done-traveling, winning-that's what I cherish most."

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