December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

IT WAS TWO HOURS BEFORE SHOWTIME on Oct. 18, and Tai Babilonia was well beyond nervous. “I was shaking,” says Babilonia, 37. “I couldn’t sit in the hotel room. I was bouncing off the walls.” Anxiously she grabbed the phone and called Randy Gardner, her best friend and skating partner of 28 years, and persuaded him to leave early for the Pensacola Civic Center, where later that night one of the most famous pairs in U.S. figure-skating history would participate in their first competitive event in more than 10 years. “Once you’re out there,” reasoned Babilonia, “it’s better.”

They finished dead last. “I knew we wouldn’t win,” says Babilonia. Same result eight days later when they competed in the U.S. Professional Skating Championships. But that’s not the point. On Nov. 10 they received a thunderous ovation when they took the ice at the Professional Figure Skating Championships in Detroit (airing on CBS later this month). The ovation, that’s the point. Babilonia and Gardner, 39, who retired from competitive skating in 1985 after a storied career that included five U.S. Pairs Championships—but also a tragically ill-timed injury that wiped out their chance at an Olympic medal—are back performing for their many fans.

“I’m not doing the stuff we did when I was younger—the jumping, the throws,” admits Babilonia. Still, they haven’t lost a bit of their artistry. “They are in great shape and look wonderful,” says former Olympic champion Peggy Fleming, now an ABC commentator. Explains Gardner: “A lot of teams are awkward together. We have this built-in rhythm that doesn’t go away.”

Though they are competing again, high scores aren’t the main goal. “Tai and Randy are competing for the audience, not the judges,” says Michael Rosenberg, their manager. “They compete to have fun.” Of course they are also receiving hefty appearance fees, reflecting the high TV ratings they draw. But even the money may be beside the point. Insists Gardner: “Audience reaction is the high. Tai and I just get a rush out of skating together.”

For Babilonia, returning to competitive skating is also a chance to prove that her past troubles—depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and a 1988 suicide attempt—are behind her. It has also helped her deal with two recent hardships. Earlier this year she filed for divorce from music producer Cary Butler, her husband of six years (they have a son, Scout, almost 2). And this August her father, Constancio, 62, died from a blood clot in his heart. “I’ve taken almost everything we’ve been offered since he died,” says Babilonia. “I think he would have wanted that.”

Those who know her say she made the right move. “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen Tai, ever,” says Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist who covers skating for CBS. “She’s come full circle and now enjoys the sport for the reasons she started skating in the first place.”

Babilonia and Gardner, who both grew up in Los Angeles, were 9 and 11 respectively when their Culver City skating coach put them together because they looked cute as a pair. Only four years later they won the National Junior Pairs Championship on their way to claiming five U.S. pairs titles and the 1979 world championship. Contenders for the gold at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, they withdrew shortly before their routine when a groin injury caused Gardner to fall three times in warm-ups. The subject is still too painful for them to bring up. “I’m almost waiting for him to discuss it, if he wants to,” says Babilonia, but Gardner apparently doesn’t. “We haven’t really talked about it,” he says. “It’s in the past and we’ve sort of moved forward.”

In April 1980 they turned professional and signed with the Ice Capades. While on tour, long hours and lonely hotel rooms led Babilonia to abuse alcohol and amphetamines. “I was a walking time bomb,” she recalls. A brief retirement from skating in 1988 didn’t help, and that September she swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, before getting scared and calling her mother, who got her to Cedars-Sinai hospital.

It was there that Babilonia realized she was blessed with a special gift: her friendship with Gardner. “When I had my stomach pumped, Randy was right by my side,” she recalls. “During that whole period, he had every reason to say, ‘See ya,’ but he didn’t.” Says Gardner: “I’m going to be her friend forever, till death do us part.”

Babilonia entered therapy and resumed skating with Gardner, though they dropped the eight-hour-a-day training sessions that had marked their glory years. “Our whole lives used to be centered around skating,” says Babilonia, who practices these days around 10 hours a week. “Now our priorities are different.” Gardner, who is single and lives in Marina del Rey with his cats Emi and Geneveve, has been producing and choreographing skating shows since 1988 and plans to produce full-time once his on-ice career ends—which could happen sooner rather than later. “We need some incentive to skate,” he says, “and we’ve accomplished everything.”

Babilonia, who moved into her parents’ home in Sherman Oaks, has her hands full caring for Scout (she shares custody with Butler) and also plans on producing skating shows. For now, though, they are together, in sync on the ice. “It feels really good,” says Babilonia. “I feel closer to the audience. I’m a nervous wreck before I go out, but once I’m there, it’s like home.”

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI

MICHELE KELLER, MARK BALLON and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

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