Episode #28: Tai Babilonia

JUNE 2009
An interview with Tai Babilonia, who with her Pairs partner Randy Gardner was a two-time Olympian, World Champion, and star of Ice Capades. 1 hour, 30 minutes, 46 seconds.

Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:

On her most embarrassing skating moment:  I don’t know what year this was, but Randy [Gardner] and I had turned professional, so I would say mid-80s. And we were doing shows at different hotels. And I wore a hairpiece, like I’d put my hair up in a tight bun and stick the ponytail in there. Well, I guess I didn’t have the ponytail locked in there, with enough hairpins or whatever I used to make it stay. And Randy knocked my head, probably with his hand or elbow, and the ponytail flew off. So there’s not really much you can do except pick it up if you happen to go by it and throw it to the side of the stage. But, you know, the show must go on [laughs].

On her first time skating:  I saw Peggy Fleming skating on TV, and all I saw was this beautiful lady, and she was floating. So my godfather took me to a birthday party at a rink. It was freezing, it had this — you know how rinks have that musty smell?, and I kept falling. it was a really crowded public session, lots of kids, everybody screaming, it was loud and just not what I expected. And I kept falling and I started crying and said to my godfather, take me home. So I didn’t understand it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and he felt so bad and then he took me home, and I guess I happened to see it on TV, and I asked my mom this time, because I got it, I understood it, she took me back and I started group lessons and that was it.

On competing as a singles skater: Both Randy [Gardner] and I competed as singles up until 1977. We competed in both, and in 1977 I made it to nationals at the senior level and I got sixth place. And after that it was like, I’m done, let’s move on to something else. We both made the right choice. I think I can speak for Randy, he took it to a whole another level, because he was Junior Men’s champion, and he medaled in Novice Men’s. But being a singles skater really, really helped our pairs skating.

On being coached by Mabel Fairbanks:  Without Mabel there would be no Tai and Randy. She literally placed our hands in one another’s.  No one ever asked what she saw in the two of us, but she saw something.

On calling her coach John Nicks “Mr. Nicks”:  I still call him Mr. Nicks because it’s all about respect, I don’t know what else to call it. His stories are great and we laugh so hard.  I look at him on a different level but it’s still the same. It’s the voice, when I hear it I get that thing in my tummy that we all get when we took from him when we were little. Such a presence, I just adore him. He took our skating to a whole different level.

On having African-American, Native American and Filipino heritage: People get confused, they’ll take one side or the other side. Sometimes they’ll [call me] the first black skater [to win US and world titles] and I’ll go, no, no, do your homework. And my [Filipino] dad will say, hey, don’t I count for any part of this? [laughs]. So I just figured out, yes, it’s multi-racial and I’m very proud of that. If there was any talk about it when I was smaller, Mabel buffered us from it. If anyone had anything negative to say about any of us, we didn’t hear it. I just knew I had to go out there and skate my best. And she had not just black skaters, but Latino skaters, Asian skaters, rich, poor, the Hollywood elite, they all gravitated toward Mabel. Mabel kicked down that big rainbow door.

On placing fifth at the 1976 Olympics: The audience booed our marks, but we were placed exactly where we should have been placed. If we had been placed anywhere else, it would have been a curse because we wouldn’t have had anywhere to go but down. We weren’t ready [to be placed higher]. We had no problem with where we were placed. Fifth place was amazing.

On Irina Rodnina: The first time we met her was in 1973. Randy and I were the first amateur American skaters to be sent to Russia. We saw her and we competed against her. She was just in a whole another league. I didn’t even consider her part of the competition, that’s how amazing she was. It’s funny, we were back in Lake Placid for something, Irina was a judge and Randy and I were judges, and they chose Irina and I to do an interview. And things came out of that [about the 1980 Olympics which Rodnina and Zaitsev won after Babilonia and Gardner withdrew]. Not real personal, but she said she felt bad and that the competition was different after we had to withdraw. That was really the only time we ever talked about it.

On her favorite pair move with Gardner: I loved the pull Arabians. Loved, loved, loved them, and the crowd loved them. And I love the Ina Bauers, the spirals, the simple things. When I watch it now . . . first, it’s like two different people. I separate ‘Tai and Randy’ from my real life anyway. But it’s the simplicity of our skating that I love. And I appreciate that more now when I’m looking at it. The simple balletic moves that we worked so hard on, on and off ice. I miss them. I wish there was some way today, with the way it is, that it could meet halfway, with what we did in the 70s and what they do now. Because now it kind of sucks. I just think it’s too much, where they don’t look like they’re having fun anymore. They don’t look like they love it.

On their off-ice training: We did ballet. And since we lived in LA and right by the beach, why not go run in the sand? I hated that, it was so hard [laughs]. And Randy lifted weights, and we did gymnastics. And double run-throughs. We would run through our five-minute program, take off our skates, go out into the parking lot, run around it — not jog, run hard — I don’t know how many times, run back into the rink, put our skates on, and do the program again.

On their unison: If there was a mistake, it was usually me. Mr. Nicks says it’s never the boy’s fault [laughs]. But it came from skating for so many years with the same partner, and with working in the mirrors in the ballet room. And with the video machines. Back then they were these big things, but we used them. That was Mr. Nicks again. That’s what we’re really known for, is that unison.

On winning the world championships in 1979: It was surreal. Every skater has one or two of those out-of-body experiences, and that was ours, where we could do no wrong. And we weren’t tired at the very end. We could have done it again, not that we wanted to. It was one of those moments when the angels were skating along with us. We were floating, it was like a dream.

On withdrawing from the 1980 Olympics: It’s part of our story. It’s part of our legacy, it made us what we are. So as rough as it was that evening, I don’t mind talking about it at all.

We attempted to watch [the short program in the pairs event] on TV, and we were just staring at the TV like zombies.  Not a word was said. We were just numb. It was very awkward. But what do you say? You’re in shock.  It was one of those fluke things, and it’s very true, we haven’t talked about it one on one. I learned a lot from the book we wrote, Forever Two as One, and the writer who worked with us, Martha Kimball, was so brilliant because she knew when we were together we could be very protective and safe with our answers. So she interviewed us separately for the whole book. And that’s when Randy let it rip, when I wasn’t there. And I was reading it and I was going, oh my God. I was learning as I was reading our own book, it was wild! But Randy, he keeps a lot of feelings and emotions in, he really doesn’t say much. I’m obviously the opposite [laughs]. And when you compare what I was thinking and going through with what he was going through, it’s amazing. But I think that’s part of the dynamic of why it worked so well with us, being so different. And [Randy] and Mr. Nicks kept it from me, that he wasn’t hurt at Lake Placid, he was hurt before we left, in Santa Monica. And that was the right thing to do.

On her crescent moon necklace: In 1979, after we won worlds, Stevie Nicks saw us on TV, and I guess the name Nicks jumped out at her. And then she saw that we were from Los Angeles, and she became a fan. And she called the rink, she called Mr. Nicks’ secretary, and left a message saying, I want to come to the rink and give Tai and Randy some gifts. And we said, no way, this has to be a joke. And [the secretary] said, no, she’ll be here at such and such a time. And so we waited for her, an hour goes by, two hours go by, three hours go by [laughs], so okay, we knew it was a joke, and we left. And about half an hour later, guess who comes swirling in, wearing red chiffon and platform boots. And we had gone! So she left the gifts, and one of them was the gold moon necklace. And I put it on, and the story’s true, the only time I took it off was that night [in Lake Placid], and it was the only time Mr. Nicks asked me to take it off. And I remember after everything else, he took it out of his pocket and gave it back to me, and I put it back on and haven’t taken it off since. I love it. It’s my favorite piece of jewelry.

On turning professional and joining Ice Capades:  It was very prestigious, a big deal for us, big contract, and big things were going to happen, and we were the stars of the show. It was three years, probably the hardest three years of my life, mentally and physically. As rough as it was, and I gave some of the poorest performances of my life, it was like high school for me. It was my growing up period, where you don’t have your parents and you don’t have that training structure. And no one can prepare you for life on the roads, nine months on the road, eight shows a week, every week a different city. And I didn’t have my parents or Mr. Nicks to run to. It was rough. [I got into] bad habits. And I wasn’t the only one with bad habits, but I was the star of the show, a role model, a lot of people looking up to you. I’m proud that I got through it, and didn’t chuck it all, but it was a learning experience. Randy took to it much better than I did. He was ready, and I was still very much a 15-year-old in my head, still growing as a woman, and pretty much everything that could go wrong, went wrong.

On why no US pair team has become world champion since 1979: I don’t think it’s anything lacking. The skaters now, it’s amazing what they have. I think it’s that our teams don’t stay together. They have one or two bad years, and they look for another partner, or another coach, or they quit. Not every year is going to be a good year. For us, 1975 was a horrible year. I grew and Randy decided not to grow [laughs]. I forgot how to jump, he couldn’t lift me, and everyone was like, oh, now what are they going to do. But 1976, the body settled down, I grew, I matured, and we got back on track. We have never ever thought of skating with anyone else, and that’s what the problem is to me. Everyone is in it for the quick fix, and it doesn’t happen that way.  It irks me. What a bunch of crap. They’re afraid to give it a chance, they’re afraid to have a bad year. I’m tired of the excuses, I really am.

On working with Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker: I’m not part of the mentoring thing with the USFSA. I got a call from the mom [laughs]. They needed a pep talk. And I know what they went through, and what they’re going to go through. So I’m just sort of the sounding board. If they need me, they have my numbers, they have my email. I don’t put my skates on, I don’t get out there and help them. I am their new friend, and if they need to talk to me, I’m there. Because I get it. And I said to Keauna when it was getting close to Nationals, give me one word that describes how you’re feeling. Because 16 is a rough age, and there was a lot of pressure to keep their title, coming up to Olympics, all this sort of stuff that they were dealing with. And she started crying, and she said, “Tai, I’m overwhelmed.” And I said, Bingo. That’s all I needed to hear. And then I knew what to say, how to say it, when to say it. I said, I know what overwhelmed is about. I get overwhelmed to this day. My 14-year-old son overwhelms me. It’s a horrible feeling, where you feel like you have no voice and you have no control. I get it. And she was so funny, she goes, Finally! Someone gets it! So before Worlds, I said to them both, You guys aren’t going out for a medal. Don’t think about medaling, you’re not ready for it yet.  Have fun. This is your coming out party. And after that, this is when the work starts. And if you think it’s overwhelming now, sweetheart, you have no idea what’s coming. And if you can’t handle it, get out. Give it to someone else who really wants it. It was harsh, I’m harsh, but it’s just honesty, and I think they needed to hear that.

On why she doesn’t coach: I tried it, and I just get too emotionally involved. This is what sealed the deal for me, I had this one little girl, a young girl, and I can’t even remember what test or what category she was in, but I got so emotional, in a good way, crying and I just wanted it so badly for her, and I was like, Tai, this is not for you. Randy has it, he can put things into a box and be a great coach or a great choreographer, but I can’t. I’ll do a seminar every once in a while, that’s fine, but put a kid out on the ice, forget it. I don’t know how Mr. Nicks or any coach does it. And I admire all the coaches who do it, because it’s a very tough job.

On being on the Skating With Celebrities TV show:  This was beyond reality. It was so much reality that it scared me [laughs]. And my partner [Bruce Jenner] happens to be frickin’ driven, like he was in 1976 when he won the decathlon, so I’ve got my work cut out for me. Bruce was a trip. He hasn’t lost that drive that he had. And he learned to skate on set, he didn’t come onto the show a skater like the one who won or the one who came second. So in my mind he’s the real winner. And he wore me out. He would skate until midnight. He would say, Tai, I’ve got to learn the flying camel. And I would say, Bruce, you’re not going to learn it in a day. And he would say, I will, you’ll see. And I’d say, OK, but I’ve got to go, I’ve got to feed my son. I want to live to see my son turn 13 [laugh]. And he learned to skate and he learned how to perform, and he was great. And Bruce is the only time I’ve ever skated with another partner.

On designing skating and dance wear: I saw something missing for the large adult skating community. I tapped into that, and I said, I can do something with that. Because they were coming up to me, saying, where can I get that? So it’s called the Tai Collection, in conjunction with Bear Hill Sports.  It’s beautiful, very flowing, very feminine, and very protecting, because not everyone’s a size two. I want the adult women to feel beautiful when they skate, because they deserve it.

On writing for International Figure Skating magazine: Susan Wessling took a chance on something she thought was interesting, and there was something I thought was missing from the magazine, which was the past. And I did this because I want the young skaters now to not forget where they came from. So my first interview, and I was so nervous because she’s been out for a while, was Janet Lynn. I got her number from a long time friend of mine, Jo Jo Starbuck, because they’re close. And I said, Jo Jo, this is what I want to do, do you think she’ll do it? And Jo Jo said, call her. And she gave me her cell phone number. So I called and I explained it to Janet, and she said, absolutely. And I loved it. She was great.  She went there, she didn’t hold anything back. She isn’t happy with how things are now, and maybe people were upset by what she said, but I get it. I want to ruffle some feathers with these interviews, and I am. And the feedback I’m getting, a lot of people don’t like honest opinions. But that’s how you keep the sport growing, that’s you keep the sport interesting. It can’t just be one way. And everyone gets the same last question, which is, if you were to change things in the sport of figure skating, what would it be? And it’s interesting, they’re all pretty much on the same page. They’re pretty similar.

On how money has changed the sport of skating: I think the sense of innocence has been lost. And money, in a negative way, has taken away from it because I think some of the skaters think it will always be there. It’s like, oh well, if I don’t skate well I still get the money. I think it’s great that they can use it and train properly and get this and that for their training, but I think it may have taken a little bit of the love out of it.

On her skating now: I moved to Oregon after 49 years in LA. I started doing seminars once a week, and that’s an hour a day, and that’s just about as much as I can take [laugh]. If it’s something really really cool and worthwhile, I’ll put the skates on, but I need to know about a month in advance so I can get into shape. Maybe two months [laughs].

I still get fan mail, and a lot of it is still about [the 1980 Olympics]. These are hardcore fans. People still want to know, how’s Randy, and is he all right. And the whole thing, it went down in about five minutes, but it affected people, not just skaters. And it defined us, not just as skaters or athletes, but as people. Two people, two teenagers, who were dealt- it just didn’t go the way everyone wanted it to. And people latched on that and onto us, because it showed that we were human. And it showed that it’s not all wonderful. And I guess how we handled it, and Mr. Nicks handled it, was in a very classy and dignified way. We said the right things, we were honest, we were innocent. And the fan mail the next day was incredible, thousands [of pieces]. And that’s what helped us get through it, was  knowing that we didn’t let everyone down.

I feel so fortunate, and I can speak for Randy, he does too — what a career. All the ups and downs,  the twists and turns, never a dull moment. I wouldn’t change a thing. Lake Placid happened for a reason. Randy looks at me like I’m out of my mind when I say this but — I’m not real religious, but some higher power, something from above, said, you know what, you two, if you can get through this, and Tai, if you can get through those horrible 80s, basically that whole decade [laughs], and come out a decent human being, then that’s a good thing. And we did, and I did. I had a really rough time, a really rough time, I mean, I hit bottom. But it made me who I am today. It made me the mother I am today.

I appreciate our fans so much, and I just get the biggest kick out of the mail on my website. It’s like, oh my God, they remember. When they saw two people go through something so horrible, and so rough, it gave them inspiration to keep going. When they saw me go through my rough time with drugs and alcohol, and they saw me struggle with it but get through it, they identify with that. So that’s why I’m here, I guess. To help people.

About the Author
Yup, I’m a skating fan. But I’m a skater too. I compete nearly every year in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, and am always thrilled to see my other skating buddies there. In my real life I work in marketing for brands that make positive changes in the world, and a mom of two rambunctious boys.

3 comments on “Episode #28: Tai Babilonia

  1. Robin Kwon Soo Han (Formerly Robin Anderson) says:

    This was one of my favorite interviews so far (1-28). Babilonia is so refreshing with her straightforward honesty of her career and the progression of figure skating from the 1970s to the present. I also appreciate the discussion around racial boundaries within figure skating – a topic that is rarely touched upon. When it is discussed the conversation is immediately shut down or some token examples are brought up to suggest the diversity in figure skating. I would contend that it is more diverse than 30 years ago, but we still have a long ways to go.

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