My late father, the eminent drama critic, author, and Yale Drama School professor Richard Gilman, was a huge figure skating fan, and he had a special soft spot for U.S. pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. He loved their balletic lines, their daring and flair, and their exquisite unison. Plus he thought they were absolutely adorable. I first fell in love with Tai and Randy, and with figure skating, when I was 8 years old and watched their thrilling 1979 World Championship winning performance with my father and younger sister, Claire. I put a picture of them up in my room, and when I danced in ballet class, I imagined extending my arms and pointing my toes with the subtlety and grace of Tai and Randy. Claire and I even talked about how Tai and Randy had a bond like the one we shared as sisters.
Almost a year later, giddy with excitement, my father, sister, and I gathered around the television on the night of the pairs short program at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics to cheer on our beloved Tai and Randy, but as we watched them skating around during the warm-up, anticipation turned to worry. We could see that something was off with Randy’s body and that their coach looked concerned. Claire asked my father: “Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s wrong with Randy?”, but my father just stared at the television screen with an expression of consternation. Then, in somber tones I will never forget, Jim McKay and Dick Button announced that Tai and Randy had withdrawn from the competition. Randy had suffered an injury that would not allow them to skate safely. Claire and I burst into tears; my father shook his head in disbelief and pulled us onto his lap. Watching, live, this devastating blow to Tai and Randy’s Olympic dream is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
Tai and Randy went on to have an extremely successful professional career, skating as special guest stars with the Ice Capades, appearing on numerous skating tours and in countless television specials. We never missed a Tai and Randy performance when they were on television. I cried again for Tai when news broke of her battle with addiction, and shared my father’s joy when he called to tell me of Tai and Randy’s induction into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1991. Through difficult times and triumphant ones, Randy and Tai were Forever Two As One, the title of their joint memoir.
Imagine my delight when Tai and I “met” last year via social media. She posted a comment on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall, I sent her a note, and we began writing to each other regularly. We have since shared our books with each other and become soul sisters. Tai is a role model and inspiration in so many ways. She is modest about her accomplishments, honest about her struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders, invariably optimistic and creatively fertile, and committed to mentoring younger skaters and supporting those suffering with addictions. She never rests on her laurels, is grateful for her blessings, and is a generous person who shares her wisdom (and good luck charms!) with others.
This bit from a poem by William Stafford reminds me so much of Tai:
“I embrace emerging experience.
I participate in discovery.
I am a butterfly.
I am not a butterfly collector.
I want the experience of the butterfly.”
Not only is the butterfly one of Tai’s totems but also Tai embraces emerging experience and participates in discovery better than almost anyone I know. Here is my Q & A with legendary figure skater and beautiful, brave, resilient soul Tai Babilonia.
Tell us about the experience of having to withdraw from the Olympics. How did you and Randy keep your partnership and friendship strong in the aftermath of that devastation? What did you learn from the experience?
That was one hell of a night, for all of us! It was a very confusing night for me, just because I didn’t know how serious Randy’s injury was. He and our coach Mr. Nicks thought it was better not to tell me everything in fear of it upsetting me in an already very intense situation. Randy was quite incredible through it all and he was the one in pain; he’s pretty tough and I never ever heard one complaint from him. He gave it his best shot and in the end it was completely out of his control. It was not meant to be. In a strange way it made our friendship/bond even stronger, whether we knew it or not. Hard to explain and I try not to analyze our unique & sometimes very dysfunctional relationship too much. I still can’t make sense of it a lot of the time. In the end I do know it all comes down to respect for one another. The 1980 Olympic experience taught us that on any given day, anything can happen. You keep pushing forward and never look back!
What are you most proud of in your skating career?
Well, I guess the obvious would be winning the World Championship in ’79. Being on two Olympic teams is something I’m also very proud of. Another highlight and a moment that I hold so close to my heart was when the incredible woman who had to bribe me to hold Randy’s hand back in 1968, Mabel Fairbanks, was inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1997. I walked Mabel onto the ice when she received this honor and I have never been so proud and honored. Mabel is responsible for breaking the color barrier in figure skating. A powerful and important moment that I will never ever forget.
You and Randy have been partners and collaborators and dear friends for about 40 years! What are the most important elements in a successful partnership?
I think we hit the 45 year mark! I don’t count anymore, lol! The most important elements for our partnership are respect, support, having the same goals & of course being great friends.
What is your favorite Olympic sport other than figure skating and why?
I love tennis. My parents actually met on the tennis courts here in Los Angeles, my brother played, and my son, Scout, plays. I have recently gone to a few live hockey games, and I have a new appreciation for that sport, amazingly quick and really kinda beautiful to watch.
If you had to skate pairs with another male pairs skater, who it would be and why?
I have skated with someone else and he’s really talented , furry, uber popular & very much a legend/icon, his name is Snoopy! No seriously, I wouldn’t want to skate with anyone other then Randy, end of story! Forever two as one!
What is the most important advice you’d give to the parents of an aspiring figure skater?
What current amateur skaters (in any and all disciplines) are you a special fan of and why? (I think Adam Rippon is one, and I love him too.)
I absolutely adore Adam Rippon. He just had a very tough nationals and it was a definite eye opener for him. He has the talent and I hope he stays in another year. I’m a huge Jason Brown fan. And Polina Edmunds is a breath of fresh air, very old school & as we all saw a fierce competitor; I don’t get nervous watching her. I’m such a fan of both Polina and Jason: they have a very 70’s type feel to their skating that I absolutely love & welcome.
Why is pairs skating in this country in such disarray? What advice would you give pairs teams?
Two words… stay together!
What is your favorite figure skating move to perform?
I still really enjoy doing death spirals and never in a million years did I think I would still be doing them at age 54! Never say never! I love spread eagles & ina bauers too!
I love seeing deep edges and big open beautiful jumps. I’ll take a huge delayed axel over an ugly squishy quad jump any day!
What is your least favorite figure skating move to perform?
Don’t have one, I love all the moves we kind of can perform now, we have a total of maybe 5! Tee hee!
I have a difficult time watching the lady skaters do all those really unattractive spins. 99% of the ladies need to get into a proper ballet class now! and I’m a stickler for pointed toes!
How does it feel to be lifted and thrown on the ice?
Well, back when we were doing those tricks, it felt like I was flying and you definitely have to have trust in your partner.
How is a skating program a metaphor for life?
I think I’m still figuring this out even as I’m typing this.
How can being a skater prepare you for living a good, healthy, evolved life after your competitive career?
Kind of the same answer as above
What did it not prepare you for?
Fame and attention. I learned by making many mistakes.
Tell us about your son and your experience parenting him.
Scout is very much his own person and very independent. He will be 19 soon and I was not prepared for him to grow up so quickly. Scout is my biggest supporter & cheerleader.
What advice would you give to other people struggling with addictions of various kinds (to food, alcohol, drugs etc)?
Don’t be afraid to reach out. There are so many wonderful programs for all addictions and also know that you are not alone.
You are one of the most creatively fertile and multi-talented people I know, Tai. Tell us about some of your current creative and professional endeavors.
I really want to try everything. I have so many ideas swirling around in my head and I just go for it! There is the line of candy Tai Treats, my memoirs, still skating a tiny bit, making jewelry boxes and designing skating clothes, working as a correspondent for the TV show “The Insider,” working on building the “Tai” brand is what I really want to do. I’m happiest when I’m working and being productive.
Who inspires you? These can be public figures, other skaters, historical figures, people from your personal life.
Anyone who works hard, pays it forward and is respectful toward others.
Do you have a favorite quotation that distills your philosophy of life?
“Love many, trust few and always paddle your own canoe.” My grandmother Marjorie Babilonia would tell me this every time I saw her from the time I was a little girl till right before she passed away back in the 90’s.
Tai Babilonia is one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. With her partner, Randy Gardner, she won five consecutive US National Pairs titles (1976-1980), was a two-time Olympian, and is the 1979 World Figure Skating Champion. When Tai and Randy won Worlds, they were the first Americans to do so in twenty-nine years, and no US pair since has won the title. Tai and Randy were favored to win Gold at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, but on the night of the short program, had to withdraw due to an injury to Randy. They went on to have an extremely successful professional career, skating for three years as special guest stars with the Ice Capades, appearing on numerous skating tours and in countless television specials, and performing in some of the most prestigious venues in the United States and abroad, including a special appearance for Queen Elizabeth and as a White House guest of Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. Tai and Randy were inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1991. They published a book called Forever Two As One, a candid and beautiful coffee table book packed with photos and quotes from the world’s top skating stars and written as a thank you to all the fans worldwide who have supported them throughout their career. Tai skated with Bruce Jenner on the Fox TV show Skating With Celebrities and still performs with Randy and others. Tai is also an entrepreneur who has designed skating attire and has her own line of chocolate treats and a collection of one of a kind hand-made crystal-encrusted jewelry boxes sold at upscale stores in California. Outspoken and honest about her own struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders, she is an advocate and mentor for people struggling with addictions of various kinds and is proudly sober herself. She considers her biggest accomplishment her role as a mother to her son, Scout.
Tai’s website: www.taibabilonia.com
Tai Treats on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TaiTreats
Recent Article about an Earring Tai has Loaned Other Skaters for Good Luck: