January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

FOR MONTHS, THE CLOSE-KNIT figure skating community had worried about Oksana Baiul. The 1994 Olympic gold medalist was spending less and less time on the ice and more and more time shopping and partying—pleasures not foreign to other 19-year-olds but troubling in the case of this teenager, an international star who was already the owner of a house said to be worth $450,000 and a new Mercedes sedan. Without parents to guide her (her mother died six years ago), she seemed out of control. Last week her friends’ fears were realized: At 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 12, Baiul crashed her car on a country road near her home in Simsbury, Conn., and was found to be legally drunk.

Baiul had been returning from watching an ice pageant in Hartford with fellow figure skater Ararat Zakarian, 30, when her Mercedes went into a 100-foot skid and veered into the brush. She suffered a concussion and a scalp wound—and Zakarian a broken finger—but the blow to her reputation was surely more damaging. She was arrested for driving while intoxicated, after the hospital reported her blood alcohol content to be .168, which is above the .1 limit. At 19, Baiul is two years shy of the legal drinking age.

“I am sorry for the mistake I made,” Baiul said in a written statement. “I apologize to the many people who have supported me in the past, and I ask for their understanding.”

Until recently, Baiul’s life had inspired both admiration and sympathy. Growing up in the Ukraine, the orphaned prodigy was taken in by her coach at 14. She won the world championships at 15 and the Olympics a year later. Professional contracts and endorsement offers poured in. Her future seemed unlimited.

“Definitely, everything came too fast for her,” says skater Ekaterina Gordeeva, a close friend and neighbor in Simsbury. “I think maybe she didn’t know how to handle it—all the money and the success.”

Bob Young, who runs the skating center in Simsbury where Baiul trains, places blame on the high-pressure life of a star. “Oksana is constantly needing to live up to a standard everyone sets for her,” he says. “It’s constant stress. Now she’s made a mistake. She’s going to pay a serious price.”

In fact, Baiul started paying a price as soon as she turned pro and, according to insiders, began to lose her competitive edge. This season she has withdrawn from three competitions and skated poorly in a fourth. “There’s been concern,” says Christine Brennan, author of Inside Edge. “We’re talking about a 16-year-old girl without parents moving to a new country, with more than a million dollars coming in contracts.”

While admitting to a taste for luxury—gowns by Versace, shoes by Karl Lagerfeld—Baiul denies she has lost her desire to compete. She blames her poor showing on a loss of confidence following injuries sustained in a collision during practice in 1994. “Sometimes,” she told PEOPLE in November, “I feel like, ‘Oh, my God! Millions of people are watching me—and I have to go on the ice.’ ” She will still have to live with that kind of pressure, plus now an additional burden of scrutiny. But her friends promise she will not be alone. Says Gordeeva: “We are all here to help her.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

ANNE LONGLEY in Simsbury and bureau reports

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