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THE RISE AND THE FALL

Feb. 25, 1980
Feb. 25, 1980

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Feb. 25, 1980

College Basketball
Motor Sports
Pro Basketball

THE RISE AND THE FALL

The dream was shattered, the hopes of two young lifetimes blown away in a moment, and now she sat in a strange house in a strange town, puzzling about what had happened. Her dad was guarding the door, his Los Angeles Police Department's sergeant's badge pinned to his belt. Nobody was to come in. Nearby, Grandma Margery was cooking country ham and eggs for breakfast, occasionally commenting on life's bitter breaks and waving a spatula in sympathy. The girl looked up. "President Carter called last night," she said. "Wanted to say he was sorry, I think."

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 1980 issue Original Layout

"Nothing he could do about it, but it was a nice thought," her dad said. "We would've called him back, but he didn't leave his number."

Outside the house an anxious world and an intrusive press wanted to know what had happened the night before, in a moment that would surely prove to be the melodramatic highlight of the Lake Placid Olympics. The impact had been stunning: Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia had dropped out of the pairs competition—Randy drawn up in pain, Tai in tears—and millions of people the world over, who had settled in to watch figure skating's most dramatic confrontation on television, were dumbstruck.

Looking back on it last Saturday morning, watching Babilonia toying absently with her braids and staring down at her boots, a sense of frustration set in. It would be hard to tell all of this without sounding maudlin and perhaps overwrought. There was a sense of being caught up in a sporting soap opera, but it was all too real.

More than any of the 1,400 Olympic athletes assembled at Lake Placid, Gardner and Babilonia had represented something special—glamour, surely, plus a touch of being kid brother and sister to those of their countrymen who had watched them win five national championships and the 1979 world title. They were both elegant and athletic, a rare balance in this sport, and at long last they would come face to face with the Soviets, who have dominated pair skating for 29 years. The showdown set for the Olympics had all the earmarks of skating's most memorable confrontation. Besides, this would be the last go-round. Gardner, 21, and Babilonia, 19, had devoted much of their lives to this moment, 11 years to be exact. For them there would be no more Olympics.

The injury that led to last Friday night's withdrawal seemed inconsequential when it happened two weeks ago; Gardner pulled the abductor muscle high inside his right thigh in a training session at the pair's home rink in Santa Monica. But it had apparently healed, and when the two started their final shakedowns in Lake Placid, Gardner felt strong. "We made some key changes in our exercise after the nationals in Atlanta," he said, "and now we're ready to get it on."

But last Wednesday, in the next-to-last workout before the compulsory short program, Gardner did an easy jump—"the most routine of moves," said Coach John A. W. Nicks—and the muscle suddenly popped again. Another muscle in Gardner's groin went with it. Nicks called off Thursday night's practice session, and, working in secret in the Olympic Village, doctors tried deep massage and ice treatments.

"We knew then that it would be hard for him to pull off any explosive moves," said Dr. Anthony Daly, the U.S. Olympic team physician. Daly also began thinking about administering an 11th-hour numbing shot, "a last-ditch effort," in case it was needed.

But there are very few secrets in an Olympics, and soon after the practice session was called off the press corps began spreading the rumor of trouble. Nicks denied it, pointing out that the practice had been set for 11 p.m. and that his pair needed rest more than workouts. But he told a friend, "I think we've got a little problem here."

It was at that point that the drama began to take on hellish proportions. Back in Los Angeles, Babilonia's maternal grandmother died, and word was phoned to Lake Placid. Babilonia's dad, Constancio, agonized and decided, at least for the moment, not to tell his daughter about it. Nor would he tell his wife, Cleo, who had been tense all week, wearing an I'm-all-right-but-please-don't-touch-me look. Connie Babilonia, an otherwise tough and hardened detective assigned to auto theft in Los Angeles, hid his emotions whenever Tai and Cleo were around. Later he said sadly, "You know, sometimes I have trouble remembering her name exactly, Cleo's mom. It seems odd, I know, but it's a matter of affection. She was very, very old, you see, and for years we had all just called her Grandma."

Everything seemed critical now: Gardner was injured and that was a secret; Babilonia's grandmother had died and that, too, was being hidden. Tai and Cleo would be told the news at some less stressful time. Connie continued to wear his jovial mask while churning inside. With so much at stake, should he keep the secret until, say, Sunday night, after the pairs finals? And then what would he say? He worried on.

Meanwhile, the No. 1 Soviet pair, Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev, were implacably perfect in practice. They skated imperiously, with precision and verve. It was obvious that they could recapture the preeminence they had abdicated last year while Rodnina had a baby.

They were skating perhaps too well, Nicks figured, and in a letter of protest to the U.S. Figure Skating Association, he pointed out "irregularities" in some of their lifts, illegal handholds according to skating rules. He wasn't seeking disqualification, Nicks said—Rodnina-Zaitsev, Gardner-Babilonia and Nicks are all good friends—but he wanted the judges to pay close attention when both pairs got down to the finals.

Through all of this, tensions were building. There is something unique about the effect of Olympic pressure on figure skaters: they take it personally. This isn't a criticism; it's just the way it is. Skaters come equipped with all the regular-issue athletic attributes, right down to bodies of coiled steel, but they perform on the far fringe of sport in a world that is half theater. It is far removed from the more craggy realities faced by downhillers, say, or hockey players who can chase their blues by giving an opponent a soul-cleansing shot to the kidneys.

At a press conference to introduce the U.S. figure skaters, Gardner displayed his usual cool, but Babilonia took the stage looking for all the world like a frightened doe who might suddenly leap up and bound over the assembled reporters and out of the auditorium. There seemed to be a bit of Broadway opening-night jitters in all this, possibly overplayed and perhaps unnecessary, but the tensions were real. And now other people were locked into the drama.

At one point in the week, friends searched out and rented a hideaway motel room for Tai, who was quartered in the Village, and her mother at the White-face Inn Cottages on the other side of Mirror Lake, so that they could protect their privacy. "Will it be dark out there?" Cleo asked. "Tai and I are such scaredy-cats that we might hear a noise outside and think it was a bear." But the figure-skating association objected to the move, pointing out that it had rented a "halfway house" in Lake Placid, where skaters could be whisked the night before competition to spend the final hours in the luxury of a single room and unshared bath. Cleo wanted to use the friends' motel room but didn't want to ruffle official feathers, and the motel room was abandoned.

So the Babilonias remained secluded in their rented house, operating under a sort of secret code: a caller would dial a certain number and a voice would answer, "Gene's Cleaners." If entreated properly, a cleaning-shop employee would run to the Babilonias' house next door and call Tai or her mother to the phone.

On Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Gardner was in his parents' room at Lake Placid's Hilton Inn. The short program would begin at nine o'clock. He was in pain, but, according to his mother, he told her "I can stand it." He began doing warmup exercises on the floor, sit-ups and pushups and stretches. There had been talk of giving him a deadening shot, but, as his mother later explained, Randy didn't like the idea. There also had been talk of donning a special sort of elastic girdle-brace, but he didn't like that idea either. Nicks appeared at 7:45 p.m., and off they all went to the arena. It was there, backstage, that Dr. Daly administered 3 cc's of lidocaine, a legal pain-killer under Olympic doping rules, injecting it directly into the affected area after telling Gardner to look the other way so that he wouldn't see the needle. It wasn't a big needle, Dr. Daly added.

Then Gardner and Babilonia suited up and went out for their warmups on the ice. And that's when the final disintegration of the dream began.

Gardner fell three times on easy jumps, rising with almost a look of bemusement, and in a trial star-lift with Babilonia, he wobbled dangerously. On the sidelines Nicks watched, stricken. In the stands Gardner's mother, Jan, got up and walked out of the arena. "I knew right then he'd never be able to make it," she said. "Jack [Gardner's father] was there and he's much stronger than I am." Jan returned to the Hilton to await news of what she knew was going to happen. "It was just a nightmare," she said.

Back at the arena it was all of that. Ordinarily, the skaters stand around the staging area, waiting to go on, but now Nicks whisked his pair back to the practice rink and there—with the three of them alone—he asked Gardner to try another star-lift. It was, if anything, more wobbly than the first and, Nicks knew, there was very real danger of injury to Babilonia if Gardner's right leg collapsed while he held her aloft.

"It was very sad," Nicks said. "They would have done very well."

Still, when the rotation called for Gardner and Babilonia to skate in the No. 4 spot, there they were. The house settled down with a buzz of anticipation. The Soviets were still to come, and the confrontation was about to get underway. Then Gardner, out on the ice for another brief test, fell again.

Nicks waved them off the rink. He opened the gate for Gardner and patted the sobbing Babilonia lightly on the back of the head. It was all over.

The drama wound down slowly. Why had Nicks even allowed them to go back out for the short program when the warmups had foretold disaster? "Because they wanted to," he said. "Life goes on."

Rodnina and Zaitsev, of course, were perfect, not taking advantage of the situation but simply skating so flawlessly that they were a wonder to behold. After coming off the ice, they sent a message to Jan: We're sorry about this; Randy and Tai are our friends.

And now it was Saturday morning, with the dream irrevocably gone. Gardner's mother tried desperately to console her son. "People lose their mates, they lose their jobs, a lot of things," she said. "And they manage to get by somehow."

For the moment, however, comforting words were not for Gardner. "You can always get another job," he said, "but you can never get another chance like this. I feel like my whole life is behind me."

And down in the house by Gene's Cleaners, Babilonia toyed with her braids, wearing a camel's hair cap that was cocked defiantly over her forehead. "See the flowers?" she said. "They came last night, too, from Michael Botticelli [a teammate]." She had sat up all night after getting back from the arena, she said, talking to her brother. About what? "About all the dumb things we did when we were little kids." Then, while Grandma Margery cooked the ham and eggs, she curled up in an easy chair and napped, hugging a pillow. By now, both Tai and Cleo knew about the death of the other grandma, but in a strange sort of way the shock of everything else seemed to soften the blow. Cleo appeared suddenly stronger now, dry-eyed and pulled up tightly, more in control than she had been all during the Olympics.

Later in the day, Gardner and Babilonia allowed that they would get back to work and go on to the world championships in March at Dortmund, West Germany, to defend their title.

And on Sunday night, Rodnina and Zaitsev, of course, went on to win the gold medal.

PHOTOZaitsev hoisted Rodnina all the way to the gold medal.PHOTOTwo badly pulled muscles left Gardner—and America's pairs' hopes—sprawled on the ice.PHOTOA sympathetic pat on the head from her coach, Nicks, was small consolation for the tearful Babilonia.ILLUSTRATION