April 17, 1989 12:00 PM

Tai Babilonia was only 9 years old when a figure-skating coach in Culver City, Calif., asked her to perform a routine with 11-year-old Randy Gardner. “I was so shy, I didn’t want to hold his hand,” says Tai. “We were just two bratty little kids.” But they were kids with a very special chemistry within four years the two were setting records as the most successful pair-skaters in U.S. history. By the time Tai was 20, she and Randy were international stars, having scored a perfect 6.0 at the 1979 world championships in Vienna.

But those high scores had an equally high price. From the moment Tai, the daughter of a then-Los Angeles police detective and a housewife, became a competitive skater, her life was consumed by her talent. “I was a fanatic,” says Tai, who completed high school with a private tutor. “I didn’t know anything else. “And when an injury to Gardner sidelined America’s new skating sweethearts at the 1980 Olympics, where they had a good shot at a gold medal, Tai had no other outlets for her grief and frustration. The pair turned pro, but their grueling schedule only intensified her isolation and unhappiness; Tai began to drink and use drugs, quit skating and, finally, attempted suicide. Only now is she beginning to understand how thoroughly the self-disciplined little girl who would get up at 5 A.M. to learn the double axel also learned to repress all her fears and insecurities—shutting out even her “best friend” and constant companion, Randy. “This whole thing has brought us closer together,” says Randy, who has been skating solo since last year. “But it’s awful we had to go through this.” At home in her antiques-filled L.A. condo, Tai talked with national correspondent Lois Armstrong about her struggle to come in from the cold.

From the middle 1970s Randy and I were winning just about every major competition we entered, so by the 1980 Olympics we were expected to win. Up until then, skating had been fun—but suddenly we were under more pressure than we could imagine. The defending Russian champions, Irina Rodnina and her husband, Aleksandr Zaitsev, were back in competition for the first time since having a baby. They were telling everyone how determined she was to win the gold, and the American press was really building us up.

A couple of weeks before we were to leave for Lake Placid, Randy pulled a groin muscle. The pain eventually went away, and everything seemed fine. But when we began practicing at Lake Placid, he pulled the same muscle again. This time he didn’t tell me about it, because he didn’t want me to panic. Our coach, John Nicks, and the Olympics doctor treated Randy and kept it quiet right up to the first night of competition.

When we skated onto the ice to warm up, the crowd was going nuts. There were American flags all over the place. Randy tried our first jump and fell. He was really hurting and told Mr. Nicks he couldn’t go on. I wasn’t sure what was happening. Mr. Nicks pulled us off the ice. We went into the hallway and waited; I didn’t know it, but Randy had gotten a shot of xylocaine. It deadened the pain, but it also took away all feeling in his leg. Randy went back on the ice and tried again. This time his leg buckled under him. John decided we had to withdraw.

The crowd was absolutely silent. I came off the ice in tears, but Randy didn’t cry at all. He is a very controlled person, and it was part of our training not to show emotion. The press followed us back to our hotel, but we had nothing to say to them, or to each other. We attempted to watch the rest of the competition on TV, but I remember both of us sitting and staring into space, not saying a word. Randy must have been angry and frustrated and filled with grief—and so was I—but after all our years together neither of us had to say one word to the other to communicate our mutual sorrow. To this day we haven’t talked about it. I’m not going to bring it up—I’m not the one who was injured. When he’s ready to talk about it, he will.

That night, I stayed up until dawn talking with my brother. We talked about everything except the Olympics. I didn’t want to have to deal with my feelings at that moment, and nobody in my family asked me to. I got through the worst night of my life without breaking down or exposing my true feelings, and that set the pattern of behavior I would follow for the next eight years. Thinking back, my family always seemed to hold feelings inside. Perhaps we learned it from my father-cops are hard to get close to, and they don’t show a lot of emotion. But both Randy and I felt like we had let the country down. The press was calling us the “heartbreak kids.”

After the Olympics, we had been scheduled to compete in the world championships, but Randy wasn’t completely healed and I wasn’t into it. Instead I took some time off. That’s when I met my first love, Christopher Knight, who played the middle brother in The Brady Bunch. I was 20 when we met, but dating was all so new. I hadn’t had a normal adolescence, filled with school, dates and proms—my teenage years were consumed by skating. So I became a teenager in my 20s and tried to make up for lost time.

Soon after I met Chris, Randy and I signed a three-year contract with the Ice Capades. The schedule was grueling, nine months on the road and summers off. I was scared but excited about turning pro. I thought, “Okay, I’m done competing. It’ll be a piece of cake from here on.” God, was I wrong. A skating tour is something in between a rock-and-roll tour and being in the circus. It’s a crazy life-style—fast-paced, sometimes glamorous, mostly lonely. The first year, I was so miserable I called my family every night and told them how much I wanted to come home.

I also began to eat—stuffing myself with pizza or candy after the show. After a few months of that, I had gained about 15 lbs. and was getting fined $5 to $10 at our weekly weigh-ins. Randy never said anything about it, but I know it was hard on him; he was not lifting me with the greatest of ease.

The second year with the Ice Capades is when the drinking started. I had become more concerned about my weight, and the girls in the chorus taught me a couple of tricks that changed my life: I began taking diet pills during the day as a substitute for food, and wine after the show to make me feel sleepy. I was so depressed and homesick. I had a few friends in the company, but I didn’t confide in anyone. I was afraid if I told somebody what I felt, they would tell somebody else. That’s how it is on the road.

My relationship with Chris fizzled, but I began to go out with other guys. Lots of guys. In 1982 I met Andy Gibb on a Bob Hope special. We hit it off right away and started dating. But we were never alone. He was always with a bodyguard. You might say I was in love with him from afar. I also dated Christopher Penn, Sean’s brother, in 1985. At one point he flew me down to Nashville, where he was doing the film At Close Range with Sean. Madonna was there, too, and we all became friendly enough that I was invited to Sean and Madonna‘s wedding. Chris and I broke up after six months, but we’re friends to this day.

That’s how it always happened—I would fall in love and then the inner wall would always go up. I’d want to get out of the relationship because I knew it wouldn’t last—that I’d be going back on the road. So I’d flirt with other guys or become very demanding. I was a handful. It seemed like none of my relationships developed into anything serious, and I began blaming it on skating. I felt that there was nothing wrong with me, that it was my career that was wrong.

My most serious relationship was with pair-skater Peter Carruthers. We had known each other through competing over the years, and in 1984 I went to see him and his sister, Kitty, do an exhibition at the L.A. Forum. Backstage something sparked. We fell madly in love. Five months later we were engaged. I thought I was ready for marriage, but I was still flirting with other men. We were also very competitive. Randy and I were in a slump, and Peter and his sister had just won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. Every time they got a contract for a commercial or a show, I would ask my manager, “Why didn’t we get that one?” It was deadly. Peter and I broke up after 14 months—and again I blamed skating.

After the breakup, my career and Randy’s zoomed. In 1986 we were asked to guest-star in Festival on Ice with Dorothy Hamill. When Dorothy subsequently left, Randy and I became sole headliners. It was a big responsibility to carry a show, and that was another pressure I had to deal with. The drinking was constant by then, but I didn’t think anything of it, and no one—not Randy, not my brother, not my parents—had any idea. They saw me have a drink here or there, but I would never let them see that out-of-control drinker in me.

It wasn’t until 1987 that I realized I was in trouble. My career was really on a roll—skating at Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, doing guest spots on television—but I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Randy loves to perform, and I would say yes to jobs because I didn’t want to let him down. I wanted to quit, but I went on skating and I began to resent it.

The drinking got heavier, and I was taking these amphetamines, called black beauties, that made me hyper and nervous. For breakfast I’d have coffee with some cognac in it, then I would take swigs all through the day. I lived on mentholated cough drops, which seemed to cover up any smell on my breath. No one knows this, but before the world professional championships in 1985 I had a couple of shots of cognac. And yet we won. Somehow I could fake it. Some nights, though, I’d miss my jumps. Randy thought I was just having an off night or going through some woman thing. I realize now, with the lifts and throws and split-second timing, that I put both of us at terrible risk.

Finally, in January 1988, I decided to quit skating. Completely forgetting that we were supposed to open at Harrah’s in a couple of weeks, I drove to Santa Barbara and walked on the beach for hours trying to gather the courage to be honest with everyone and tell them about my problems. I had my skates with me, and I threw them into a sewer. Lord knows where they are now.

I thought the main problem was that I was tired and overworked. I had no personal life, and there was also the pressure that if I didn’t perform, everyone else would be out of work. Emotions I had always kept locked up starting coming out. I cried and cried. And for the first time, I thought about suicide.

When I got in touch with Randy and my manager after two days, I told them I wanted to quit—but I wouldn’t admit my deeper problems. They convinced me that I should do the Harrah’s show and “retire on a high note,” so I bought a new pair of skates and went to Lake Tahoe. The date was successful despite my incessant drinking. But one night I lost it all—for the only time in our 20 years together Randy and I actually had a physical fight. To be truthful, it was more his subduing me after I flipped out in the dressing room for no particular reason. I hit him and pushed him against the wall and kicked and screamed.

Randy and I have had a very strange relationship—magical but odd. I consider him my best friend, and yet for years we had nothing in common except skating. We rarely spent time off the ice together, and he always had his own set of friends. I had never talked to him about my anger and frustrations because I thought this was something I could work out for myself. But one thing I’ve always cherished is his friendship. He could have bailed out many times, but he didn’t.

We managed to finish the Harrah’s run, then I quietly announced my retirement and dropped out of sight. I just sat around my condo trying to decide what I wanted to do. I dyed my hair burgundy so there would be no way I could perform. I shut out my friends, slept until noon, refused to answer my phone. I just sat there drinking, with my cats on my lap, thinking the worst. Again, thoughts of suicide came up strong. Randy and my family and some friends saw these signs of depression, but they thought I’d snap out of it, so they didn’t interfere.

I never thought I had a serious drinking problem until I saw an AA commercial one day last June. It made me think about how I was drinking before even a simple business meeting because I didn’t want to deal with skating. I decided to go to an AA meeting. It was scary to stand up and say, “My name is Tai, and I’m an alcoholic.” I told my parents too. My dad’s response was, “Tai you have more character than that.” They couldn’t believe it because they’d never seen me drunk. I was a total closet case.

After 69 days, I went off the wagon and decided that I didn’t want to live any longer. On Sept. 14, I tried to commit suicide. I bought some sleeping pills and a bottle of booze. I cleaned my house and wrote a will leaving my cats to my parents, my car to my brother and my antique dolls to the L.A. Children’s Museum. I was calm and I was serious.

The next morning I woke up around 9 o’clock and took a handful of the pills with some water. I thought I’d just fall asleep. Instead I started shaking and sweating. I got really scared and called my mom. I said, “I did a real stupid thing,” and hung up. Alarmed by the sound of my voice, she called an ambulance. The paramedics forced me to vomit, and I was hospitalized for a few hours and then I was home again. My mother came and stayed with me for two weeks. Everyone was very worried.

I started seeing a therapist several times a week. It takes a lot out of me, but it’s something I have to do. I’m seeing that all the rage and bitterness that I held in at the Olympics has been coming out over the years since. Randy came to a therapy session with me, and I told him then, flat out, how I felt about being part of Tai and Randy all my life—how fearful I was about being on my own without him, about how important it is for me to find out who Tai is. Now that we are no longer on the road, the relationship is more normal. Now we can talk; we’re not skating robots anymore.

Now that I can speak openly about my feelings, my family and friends are taking me more seriously, listening to me and becoming aware of my needs. I won’t take drugs again—ever. I quit going to AA last August, but the fact that I was straight that amount of time taught me that I didn’t have to drink all day. Now I have a Courvoisier once in a while, and I drink wine. But I’m not dependent on it like I was. And there’s a new man in my life. His name is Sean Franks, and he’s nice and calm and sweet.

I’ve also started skating again. I was scared to death to put my skates on. But once I got a feel for the ice, it all came back. About a month ago, Randy and I started skating together. We do it three times a week, an hour a day. We’re not booked for anything major, but we’re getting back to being Tai and Randy. It’s okay this time. I have balance in my life.

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