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OLYMPICS HELENE ELLIOTT

Pair's Triumph Is Frozen in Time

March 12, 2004|HELENE ELLIOTT

It was the moment every athlete envisions but many never reach, when skill and will and preparation combine for perfection.

"We had wings," Tai Babilonia said of the performance that won the 1979 world figure skating title for her and partner Randy Gardner. "We were just floating. It was one of those out-of-body experiences.

"It was like the angels were with us. And while we were out there, we sort of knew it."

Sunday will be the 25th anniversary of their triumph at Vienna, a feat no U.S. pair has duplicated. They probably won't celebrate, but one will surely call the other, continuing a friendship that began when they were reluctantly paired as kids at the Culver Ice rink.

"Wow, it's amazing," said Gardner, 46, a choreographer for skaters and skating shows. "It's always been in the back of my mind, a great memory. It was really a great skate for us, a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Babilonia, 44, was oblivious to the milestone until she was reminded by her boyfriend, comedian David Brenner. "Everything goes by so quickly," said Babilonia, who conquered substance abuse problems to become the happy, healthy mother of a 9-year-old son, Scout.

"I just watched it recently, and it's like watching two different people. Tai and Randy is separate from Scout's mom. But oh, my God, we were pretty good that night."

Training in Santa Monica with coach John Nicks, they climbed the competitive ladder rapidly because of their athleticism and compelling look. Gardner is 5 feet 8 and Babilonia 5-5 1/2, which made it tough for them to match rivals' lifts and throws but enhanced their unison and style. Pair skating was then dominated by mismatched couples, a tall man partnering a tiny woman, and by Soviets, who had won 14 straight world titles.

Ten of those titles were won by Irina Rodnina, first with Alexei Ulanov and then with Alexandr Zaitsev. But in 1978, Rodnina, then married to Zaitsev, became pregnant. Babilonia and Gardner, who had won four U.S. titles and had finished third at the 1977 and 1978 world competitions, knew their moment had arrived at Vienna.

"We trained to go for it," Gardner said. "We never had it locked because the East Germans and other Russians were good. I felt some pressure but Mr. Nicks was good about helping me keep my head on straight."

They led after the short program and clinched their victory by earning a perfect 6.0 in the long program. That positioned them as gold-medal favorites at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, but they had to withdraw before the short program because of a recurrence of a groin injury Gardner suffered in training.

They've never discussed it. Nor will they forget it.

"You can't put it to rest. Not really," Gardner said. "I think we could have [won]. I think the crowd would have been behind us and had a lot of impact. But who knows?"

They skated in shows for a while and still conduct seminars together. This fall, they'll oversee an outdoor ice rink in Santa Monica that will feature celebrity nights, with fees going to charities. They still follow skating and agree the reason no U.S. couple has stood atop the podium at the world championships is impatience.

"They need to stay together more than five years," Babilonia said. "It's like if something goes wrong the first two years, they split up. It takes a good five years to get to know each other on the ice and off....

"They want quick results, so they change partners and have to start all over. We had our ups and downs but I can't even imagine skating with another partner."

Here and There

The U.S. women's water polo team got a tough draw for the Athens Games, placed in Group B with Russia, Canada and World Cup champion Hungary. But Coach Guy Baker believes an early test will strengthen his team, which won the silver medal at the Sydney Olympics and is ranked No. 1 in the world.

"I like our draw," he said. "It helps us in training. If we can't get focused with that draw, we're in trouble. If we can't get top three and advance to the quarterfinals, we get what we deserve."

Italy, a physical team that is ranked No. 2, is in Group A with host Greece, defending Olympic champion Australia and Kazakhstan. The top team in each group gets a bye and the second- and third-place teams in each group will cross over to meet in the semifinals.

Christopher Abalo of Glendora finished seventh by 1.7 points of a possible 600 points at the International Shooting Sports Federation World Cup competition recently at Sydney, Australia. The 17-year-old Glendora High student will compete in a World Cup event in Athens in April, a test event for the Summer Games.

Short track speedskater Rusty Smith of Sunset Beach, a bronze medalist in the 500 meters at the Salt Lake City Olympics, placed second in the elite men's group at the recent U.S. short track championships and earned a berth at the world championships next weekend in Gothenburg, Sweden. Maria Garcia of Carson was fourth among the elite women and also won a berth at the world championships. Halie Kim of Fullerton placed second in the elite women's group but can't compete in Sweden because she's 14, a year below the minimum age.

Marin Austin of Laguna Niguel, Jade Wheeler of Los Alamitos and Alice Kim of Buena Park finished sixth, seventh and 11th in the elite women's group. Misi Toth of USC and Jordan Malone of Long Beach were ninth and 13th among the elite men.

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