November 24, 2003 12:00 PM

Driving through her hometown for the first time in almost a decade, Olympic figure-skating champion Oksana Baiul witnessed her life flashing before her. “I saw the school I went to,” says Baiul, 26, of the three-day pilgrimage she and fiancé Gene Sunik, 30, made to Ukraine in September. “I saw the hospital where I was born and the hospital where my mom died. I really didn’t want to cry.” Finally their car pulled up in front of a white stucco house, the sidewalk crowded with people. Baiul’s eyes locked on a dark-haired man bearing a huge beautiful bouquet. She could remember seeing him only once before, in 1991 at the funeral of her mother, Marina, but there was no mistaking him: her father.

“Oh, it was a powerful moment,” says Baiul, who was so distraught when her mother died of ovarian cancer that she refused to speak to her estranged father when he unexpectedly showed up at the cemetery. “I pushed him away,” she recalls. This time, however, “we sort of ran into each other’s arms,” she says, her voice choking up. “We kissed each other and started crying. I felt like those 25 years never happened, like I knew him my whole life.”

In fact Baiul grew up without knowing her father, Sergei, at all; he left the family after he and Marina split when Oksana was only 2. “My mom never, ever wanted to talk to me about him,” says the skater. For years Baiul, who moved to the U.S. at 16 after winning the women’s figure-skating gold medal at the 1994 Olympics, had yearned to reconnect with her roots. But first she had to learn to live on her own as a teenager in a strange land, as well as win a well-publicized bout with alcoholism. (She says she has been sober since completing rehab in August 1998.) Of those troubled times, Baiul says, “I wished my mom had been there with me, because no matter what happens, you can still crawl under the sheets and say, ‘Please help me.’ ”

Taking an extended break from the ice and becoming secure in her relationship with Sunik, whom she met at a December 2000 Christmas party, helped give Baiul the strength to finally hunt for her father. “I knew I would have to make that step sooner or later,” she says. Roughly a year after starting her search through contacts of Sunik’s Ukrainian family, Baiul found herself on her father’s doorstep in the old factory city of Dnipropetrovs’k. “I was just so nervous, so scared about how this was going to go,” Baiul says. “Granny was crying and waiting for me with bread and salt [a Ukrainian custom for welcoming guests]. Then I walked in and I felt like part of the family.”

Once inside, Baiul began to feel even more at home. Her father, now 48 and a semiretired engineer, pulled out all the clippings he had collected over the years about her skating career. “I was surprised by how beautiful she is and how much she reminded me of Marina,” he says. When the pair started showing each other snapshots, “my father said he had the same dog as I did,” Baiul recalls. “I said, ‘No way.’ They had a Chihuahua too.” Although the skater had many questions for her father, who had never remarried, she decided not to ask about her parents’ split. “That was past, and we cannot bring back my mom,” says Baiul, whose mother died when Oksana was 13. But Baiul did ask her father and 74-year-old grandmother questions about Marina’s family. Baiul discovered that she is part Jewish—Baiul’s grandmother was a Hungarian Jew, sent to Siberia during World War II—just like her future husband. “While we were at my mama’s grave, I asked my family a lot about my roots,” says the skater, who was raised Russian Orthodox. “It’s just a curiosity, wanting to know who you really are, what’s in your blood.”

Baiul and Sunik, who runs his family’s clothing company, North-Sportif, have not yet decided whether their wedding next summer will incorporate any elements of their now-shared Jewish heritage. But the skater says the guest list will definitely expand to include her father and grandmother. “I felt this is it. That’s the hole which hadn’t been closed in my life,” says Baiul of the reunion. “I feel loved.”


Sharon Cotliar in Cliffside Park, N.J.

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