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STEEL AND FIRE ON ICE

Feb. 11, 1980
Feb. 11, 1980

Table of Contents
Feb. 11, 1980

Syracuse
Bill Walton
Crosby
Sir Slam
Baird
College Basketball
Downhill
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

STEEL AND FIRE ON ICE

How's this for a strange combination of names? lie is Randy Gardner. Nothing at all exotic there; yon can hang your hat on a name like that. Bui, ah, she is Tai Reina Babilonia. Say it and the very sound raises images of almond eyes and finger cymbals and folks lounging around eating grapes from the tips of daggers. The matching of Gardner-Babilonia doesn't seem quite right at first—top-heavy, maybe—but, as it turns out, Randy and Tai are perfectly matched; they are the most formidable pair in U.S. figure skating history, five times the national champions and current world champs. Together, they make up two of the sport's top four prospects for a gold medal at the Winter Olympics starting next week. The other two are the Soviet pair, Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev. This comes as no surprise, because the other two are always the Soviet pair. They come with the franchise. It promises to be a classic confrontation.

This is an article from the Feb. 11, 1980 issue Original Layout

Fair enough. If the U.S. has ever been ready for such a showdown, this is the moment. The Gardner-Babilonia team has been 11 years in the making, on the ice rinks of California and the world. Both are Los Angeles-area natives, Randy from Ladera Heights, Tai from Mission Hills. Randy is 21 now, a part-time USC student. Tai is 19 and restless, poised between high school and whatever happens next; maybe college, maybe not. This Olympic shot is likely to be their last and best. Randy has constant lower-back pain—"we'd like to knock off and play a little while our bodies are still functioning," he says. "We've been missing a lot of regular-people life," says Tai.

Pair skaters must perform as mirror images; they work together so closely, with so little time for anything but training, it is no wonder that most pairs are in love, engaged, married or brother and sister. Randy and Tai don't fit into any of those categories; heck, they don't even figure they've got to stop meeting like this. The way Tai sees it, their relationship goes beyond all the others.

"We're like boyfriend and girlfriend, but we're not that," she says. Does that explain it? Randy nods in agreement—he has postponed all serious dating until, say, Monday, Feb. 18, the day after their event in the Olympics. But Tai is serious about getting this just right. "It's like being husband and wife in a way," she says, "and sometimes like being brother and sister—but we're not that, either." Does that make it any clearer? Well, then: "It's, um, it's like being best friends," she says, "but it goes way beyond that, too." Understand? Exactly.

At 5'8" and 145 pounds, Randy looks ascetic and coolly handsome, even slightly consumptive in just the right light. Randy's serious look speaks of nobody-knows-the-trouble-I've-seen, and when he smiles, he appears considerably less than ferocious. It is all sham.

The hard fact is that Randy is all pulled together, with roughly 45 miles of pure sinew. He is enormously strong and quick; if dropped headfirst from the roof of a rink, he would land on his skates every time. It is a further measure of his deception that, going full blast, he does elegantly flowing things with his fingertips, beckoning Tai to his side. And then, with what seems to be the merest bit of backspin, he throws her over the Zamboni. Tai spends a lot of time high in the air, looking down at the crowd. She and Randy have introduced a daring and graceful new dimension to the sport, which is all the more gutty because it isn't absolutely necessary. They could rely on bits and pieces of more balletic fluff, full of swoops and slow spins; play a safer game to ensure a medal, as their arch rivals, the Soviet pair, do. "Rodnina doesn't even land by herself," says Tai. "I mean, every time he picks her up, he always just gently puts her back down."

Not Gardner-Babilonia. Tai is 5'5" and weighs 115 pounds, although she looks and photographs taller. More trickery. It is now a familiar phenomenon in skating that whenever Randy picks up Tai, everybody watching involuntarily flinches; something bold is about to happen. And when it works—when Tai lands perfectly on that right outside edge—folks somehow feel much better for it, as if they had just looked into the eye of the sport.

With all this, it figures that Randy and Tai will go for it all, right off, when the music starts at Lake Placid. After hitting top speed, Randy'll wave Tai in—and then flip her up and away in a throw double axel. She'll spin, rhinestones ablaze, through 2½ turns, picking up speed from right to left, then land lightly, going backward. It will all happen in a blink—a 20-foot toss. "It's a big opener," Randy says with a shrug. "Gets their attention," says Tai. And John A. W. Nicks, their coach, admits it is the grand gamble.

"The prospects for a fall are appalling," he says. "Other skaters can do the throw double axel, but nobody in the world today can do it as far or as fast as Randy and Tai. It's dangerous; if they blow it, they could blow the Olympics. At that speed, it's like throwing somebody off a train. She would probably slide into the boards and might not be able to catch up."

But mostly they do it successfully and, at this point, with roughly 4½ minutes to go in a five-minute exercise, they sure as shootin' have got everybody's attention. Then come a lot more moves in quick sequence: spins and jumps and flips with strange names and, somewhere in all this, the one-arm star lift. That takes a bit of explanation.

"I'm like a star, see?" says Tai. "That is, I spread out my arms and legs to form the points of a star, while Randy holds me up in the air." Well, "a starfish," Randy says, perhaps seeking a less weighty image, because he supports all those points with just his right arm, smiling all the while as if to say, can't talk right now, I've got this girl over my head.

Lifts are perilous but vitally important to pair skating, and making them look easy is the hard part. Once, when they were kids, Randy slipped and Tai dropped out of a split twist. She landed on her face and the crash knocked out one front tooth and loosened six others; the only thing that kept them in place was her braces. The tooth went skittering away on the ice and, while Tai was suiting up to go to the hospital, another skater found it in a far corner. Tai presented it to the dentist; the tooth was hammered back into place and the braces were retightened. And a few days later, through hideously puffed lips, Tai said to Randy: "Lithen, leth try that thplit twi'th again until we're thure of it." Tai, too, is tough.

The courage that goes with pair skating is hard to define; it's hidden away behind an aura of cold self-assurance. "Lord knows, you can't spot the quality in kids," says Nicks. "I used to search out potential pairs; I would point to two tiny hotshots on the ice and predict that they would go all the way. I was always wrong. But Randy and Tai have more than their talent. There is enormous self-discipline and the ability to produce under pressure. Any pain they may feel is carefully hidden away where the spectators can't see it."

Nicks figures that the new elements introduced by his pair, athleticism and grace, will be the mode for at least the next two Olympics. "I didn't want to beat all the others by copying them," he says.

And after the first athletic burst, Gardner-Babilonia continue their number with a balletic sequence—"you catch your breath while communicating with the crowd," she says—and finish with their big ender, the death spiral. This is the move most familiar to those who occasionally watch figure skating: the laid-back spin in which the man swirls the woman horizontally over the ice until, ideally, she comes back up with frost on the back of her head and not her fanny. As the name implies, it's not easy—most skaters put it in the middle of a program, when they've still got the steam. It consumes all the energy Randy has left. "At which point we come up," he says, "do a couple of turns and say, 'Ta da.' And that's it."

Well, that ought to be it. But now comes the sneaky stuff and that confrontation with the Soviet pair. A number this stunning has got gold medal stamped all over it; somebody ought to be able to seal Randy and Tai in Lucite—spangles, skates and all—and hang them from the ceiling of the Smithsonian. But anybody who thinks they are a shoo-in doesn't understand the tricky realities of a sport that is governed by subjective voting. Quick translation: subjective voting is where an Eastern bloc judge turns to a Western bloc judge and says, "I agree that they were superb, the best. And you trot them out in the next Olympics and I'll sure vote for them. But first...."

And up pop Rodnina and Zaitsev, wife and husband, both Merited Masters of Sport of the U.S.S.R., ages 30 and 27, recent mommy and daddy and long-standing champions of the Soviet Union, Europe, the world and the last Olympics. It was when the Zaitsevs took maternity leave from the 1979 world championship in Vienna that Randy and Tai swept to the title, the first Americans in 29 years to pull it off. (It was no fluke: their show stood skating on its ear. One West German judge turned up a perfect 6 and four others, including a Soviet judge, voted 5.9s.)

But now the Zaitsevs are back for one more run, and the unspoken understanding in the sport is that, given one more Olympic gold, they'll glide off to a Soviet ice show to reign forever. This sort of misplaced sentimentality is largely old-school European; young skaters must wait their turn. With that attitude, no proper cynic in the U.S. would be much surprised if Irina skated out carrying 11-month-old Sasha in her arms, playing for the kitchy-kitchy-coo vote. But that is too harsh; the Zaitsevs are, indeed, a sensational pair, and what they may lack in throws, they make up for in lifts. The only way to beat them, to overcome the winter-book odds, will be to pull off an exercise that nobody can vote down, tacit agreements be damned.

And this, naturally, is what drives Randy and Tai on. The prospect of a showdown with this celebrated pair is just about as exciting to them as the prospect of an Olympic gold medal; some days it could go either way in terms of importance. What they want to do is to take part in a competition that will make history in their sport, the sort of thing that would be followed by an asterisk in the record books. At the bottom of the page, just behind the asterisk, it would note, Lord, Lord, you should have been there for this one.

After all, they're not going to do this forever, like the Zaitsevs and, before them, the Protopopovs, who recently defected to the U.S. (and the Ice Capades). Gardner-Babilonia have been skating as a team since Randy was 10 and Tai was eight, and more and more often now they have a sense of all right, already. Both are vaguely aware that there is another life out there, one in which people sleep in until at least six o'clock every morning, gobble junk food and don't wear rhinestones to work. Randy wants to get back to USC and be a cinema major, having finally patched his freshman year together in bits and pieces between skating competitions. Tai wants to slip into something comfortable, like jeans and running shoes, and study commercial art.

Practically the first thing Randy and Tai can remember is being forced to appear as Dr. and Mrs. Dolittle in a Culver City skating club revue, both of them genially hating each other on sight. They had wanted to go on as singles. "We were not only bad, we were funny," Tai says. But they were also Instant Team, with both of them suddenly communicating through a sort of mental radar that the grownups figured was positively eerie. On the ice, each one instinctively knew where the other was, with no peeking, and if one fell the other could vamp until ready without so much as looking over a shoulder. And now that it is even more natural to them, they agree that it is sort of spooky at that, as if they had been dropped into California out of a Ray Bradbury novel and had sought each other out.

But off the ice, nothing has been easy. Neither the Gardners nor the Babilonias are wealthy, a condition that probably should be required for folks who would raise skating kids. Randy's dad, Jack, is a cost accountant for Hughes Aircraft and his mom, Jan, is a schoolteacher. Tai's father, Constancio, is a detective sergeant on the Los Angeles police force. He could have retired in 1977, but he is pulling another five—and doubling as a security guard at Paramount Studios—to pay for Tai's coaching and equipment. "Well," he says, "we've always been a competitive family and I was all for this right from the start, when Tai first showed an interest in skating. Of course, I didn't know it would go this far."

Since 1971 it has been John Nicks who has tuned this synchronized machine—"he taught us all the neat stuff," says Tai—through a series of delicate adjustments. Nicks is regarded as the most inventive coach in a sport in which copying has always been considered the safest course. He has insisted that it is possible to combine ballet with bounce on the ice. "It takes a willingness to be different," he says, "even when it's risky."

And now Randy and Tai are ready for the ultimate risk. They are working out twice a day, every day, and at night Randy lifts weights, doggedly doing squats with 145-pound barbells. It adds to the deception: he grows quietly stronger, but it doesn't show.

And even as you read this, Tai grows prettier, which is an unnecessary but welcome plus in the sport. She is as tawny in color as a lioness, an almost-finished woman of full bosom, tiny waist and impossibly long legs. Indeed, had Tai been born in another era, say, of the Garrick Gaieties and Diamond Jim Brady and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, it is possible that fat men in brocade vests would be drinking champagne from her skate boot.

As it is, however, Tai is content to hide her own particular grittiness behind her soft appearance. And if much of figure skating is wonderful illusion anyway, then it has all come together in Tai. Her dad is Filipino and her mother is a stunning, dark-skinned Louisiana beauty. The name Tai was suggested by her godfather, Matsumi Nakashima, who says it means "tranquil" in Japanese. Her middle name, Reina, is Spanish for queen. That one was Dad's idea, because, he says, "the Spanish ruled the Philippines for all those years."

Perfect. You blend all that in with a strong, straight-ahead name like Randy Gardner, and you've got a team. The rest of it, as they say in figure skating, is all rhinestones. And guts.

PHOTOChampions of the U.S. and world, Randy and Tai climax a sizzling act with the flashy death spiral.PHOTORelentless in their workouts, Randy and Tai check out a high kick with Coach John A.W. Nicks.PHOTOIce is always nice, but a little bit of relaxing roller-disco can work wonders for a training regimen.ILLUSTRATION

FIGURE SKATING

MEN

ROBIN COUSINS Great Britain
CHARLES TICKNER U.S.A.
VLADIMIR KOVALEV U.S.S.R.

WOMEN

LINDA FRATIANNE U.S.A.
ANETT PÖTZSCH East Germany
EMI WATANABE Japan

PAIRS

ZAITSEV-RODNINA U.S.S.R.
GARDNER-BABILONIA U.S.A.
SHAKRAI-CHERKASOVA U.S.S.R.

DANCE

KARPONOSOV-LINICHUK U.S.S.R.
SALLAY-REGÖCZI Hungary
SUMMERS-SMITH U.S.A.