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Thawing the Black Ice : Emotional Fall Behind Her, Babilonia Looks Forward to Touring With Gardner

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, former world champion skaters.

August 24, 1996|IRENE GARCIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIMI VALLEY — As they glide over the ice, Randy Gardner lifts Tai Babilonia above his head and twirls her in a circle. Then, putting her down, he grabs her hand and spins her again, this time with her body parallel to the surface and her long, curly hair brushing the ice near his feet.

Just like the good old days.

In 1979, Babilonia and Gardner became international sensations by sweeping to a pairs figure skating world championship with perfect scores.

No American duo had won such a title in 29 years before, and none has won since.

Babilonia and Gardner were the toast of the skating world and the sport's American darlings. Noted for their breathtaking and innovative routines, they won five consecutive U.S. pairs titles from 1976 to 1980 and were favored to win the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., before an injury to Gardner forced them to withdraw.

Except for brief hiatuses in 1988 and '95, Babilonia and Gardner have skated continuously since they met as kids--she was 8, he was 10--at a Culver City arena.

They are approaching their 29th anniversary of skating together, longevity that is rare in the sport.

They train regularly at the Easy Street Arena, preparing for exhibition tours that will be televised this fall and a 25-city Tour of World Figure Skating Champions on the East Coast, Jan. 3 to Feb. 9.

"I love it more than ever now," said Babilonia, who grew up in Mission Hills. "I think we appreciate it more and it's more special."

Babilonia and Gardner were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1992. Over the years they've performed in the nation's most popular ice skating productions, including top venues such as the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

The discipline and dedication is still there, but Babilonia says her 18-month-old son, Scout, has shifted her focus away from the ice.

Since she began skating at age 6, she had little time for anything but training and competing.

Until now.

"It used to be skate, skate, skate," said Babilonia, a Sherman Oaks resident. "Now it's Scout, Scout, Scout. It takes some of the pressure off skating and that's good."

Babilonia jokes and giggles during practice routines with Gardner. At age 37, she is the happiest she's been in a long time.

Time has helped Babilonia heal and bounce back from serious personal problems she experienced after the 1980 Olympics.

Babilonia took an emotional fall after a groin injury suffered by Gardner during a warmup forced them to withdraw from the competition.

After training for more than a decade, their dreams of an Olympic gold medal were suddenly shattered.

"It was a real nightmare," Gardner said. "We had worked so hard for that moment."

Both skaters turned pro and Babilonia numbed the pain with amphetamines, heavy drinking and destructive relationships.

In 1988, she swallowed sleeping pills in a suicide attempt, then became frightened and called her mother, Cleo, who notified paramedics.

Babilonia went into therapy and less than a year later started performing again.

"I had a roller coaster career and it had more down time than up time," Babilonia said. "But I'm stronger because of it. At the time it was hell, but I'm glad I went through it."

Gardner played a huge role in her recovery, standing by her and never contemplating a search for another partner.

"I was lucky to have Randy," Babilonia said. "He stuck with me when he didn't have to. He's my best friend, and of all the titles we won together our friendship is what I cherish most."

In 1990 Babilonia went to Toronto for the filming of the television movie "On Thin Ice," her life story.

Babilonia and Gardner were consultants in the monthlong production and they doubled for the skating sequences.

The movie depicted the thrill of victory and agony of Babilonia's alcoholism, drug abuse, broken love affairs and her suicide attempt.

Certain scenes were very painful for Babilonia and at the time she said: "After the first week I was ready to come home. . . . I panicked, freaked out . . . I knew I just couldn't watch the taking of the pills, the ambulance scene."

Now those things seem as if they took place a lifetime ago. Babilonia has turned the page on that chapter and refuses to look back.

She plans to make a living on the ice for many years, and why not? She and Gardner, who is also a choreographer and show director, are still top attractions.

Their performances are in demand, promoters say, and the "Tai and Randy" headline still draws substantial crowds.

In May, Babilonia and Gardner were honored at the White House with past and present Olympians and they received a huge ovation after skating in the dinner presentation at the nearby Hilton.

At the Easy Street Arena, where they train four times a week, young skaters often recognize them and watch in awe as the old pros practice their routines.

"People don't forget," said Terry Tonius, the arena's director of skating. "They had such a memorable career that they're still in the hearts of many skaters."

There is one big difference both Gardner and Babilonia agree exists in their routines today that didn't in the midst of their amateur heyday.

"We're slower," Babilonia said with a laugh.

Veterans who have been in the business for almost three decades, they still have what it takes to impress youngsters. And they still make it look easy.

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