By Richard Jerome
June 23, 1997 12:00 PM

Oksana Baiul scurries around her Simsbury, Conn., house, packing for a flight to Los Angeles. She’s scattered and frenetic, but then she doesn’t know when—or even if—she’ll return. When she bought the $450,000, nine-room house last fall, she wanted to make it a cozy place all her own. Six months later, despite photos of herself on every wall, it has all the personality of a brand-name hotel. “I don’t know why I bought this house,” Baiul says with exasperation. “It’s so big for just one person. It’s lonely.”

Baiul, 19, the Ukrainian waif who beguiled the world with her gold-medal skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics, is once more trying to fill the emptiness. In March, she broke with her longtime coach and de facto mother, Galina Zmievskaya, and jetted off to join a new mentor, choreographer Sara Kawahara. Now skating with the Campbell’s Soups Tour of World Champions (her solo routine dramatizes the life cycle of a flower—”I come up from underground and become a full bloom”), Baiul is rebuilding a career that appeared headed for ruin.

The exuberant little girl who lit up Lillehammer three years ago was all saucer-eyed innocence and infinite promise. But Baiul seemed to lose her way—and then nearly her life when she survived a high-speed crash of her new Mercedes near Hartford. The January mishap was rife with metaphor: Ice princess skids out of control.

It had been a long fall from the winter night three years before when she narrowly beat out Nancy Kerrigan for Olympic gold and stood on the victory stand with tears of disbelief and joy glistening in her eyes. Six months later, she and her skating “family”—coach Zmievskaya, her daughter Nina and Nina’s husband, 1992 gold medalist Viktor Petrenko—all settled in Simsbury and helped start the International Skating Center, a rink where pro and amateur skaters practice and perform. Baiul cast her lot with the William Morris Agency and signed a pro skating contract worth $1.5 million. She endorsed her own line of skating wear, designed a line of jewelry called Ice Crystals and posed for some kittenish fashion spreads. She also agreed to a modest deal with Random House, which published her picture-book autobiography, Oksana: My Own Story.

Soon, however, Baiul began chafing at her rigorous life on ice. “All I did was work and work and work,” she says. Nagged by old back and ankle injuries, she started skipping practice to spend her nouveaux riches on designer duds at the mall. She partied with newfound friends—some of them teens, others a little older—that she met at the rink and at her gym and, by her own admission, started drinking about a year ago. All in all, it was hardly surprising that her performance suffered—she hasn’t won a competition since Lillehammer. “I think it was a combination of reaching the highest goal in figure skating and, like, where do you go from there?” says Jodi Fish, 24, an aspiring pop singer who is Baiul’s closest friend in Simsbury. “She didn’t make the most responsible choices. The difference is, most kids have their parents to put them back in place, and she didn’t.”

“Millions of teenagers are doing the same stuff, and no one even cares about that,” says another Baiul friend, skater Ekaterina Gordeeva. “She has so many fans, and she has to know they’re looking up to her.”

Whether it was the stress of meeting such expectations or simply garden-variety growing pains, Baiul nearly lost everything on a dark country road near her Simsbury home. On Jan. 12 she had attended an ice pageant in Hartford and afterward, at a local bar, downed about four or five Long Island iced teas, a potent mixed drink the ingredients of which include vodka, gin, rum and tequila. By 2:30 a.m. she was at the wheel of her green Mercedes and traveling at what police estimate was close to 100 mph when she and fellow skater Ararat Zakarian, 30, careered off the two-lane highway and into some bushes. “When I saw my car and the blood in the back seat, I started crying,” Baiul says. “But I’m realizing that if that was my time to die, God would have taken me. He didn’t. I haven’t touched liquor since.” She sustained a mild concussion and a scalp wound; Zakarian, a broken finger. Baiul believes she was protected by a guardian angel—her mother, Marina, who died of ovarian cancer at 36 in 1991. “After my accident, I put her cross around my neck, and I will never take it off,” she says.

Meanwhile, the skating world fretted that Baiul’s once brilliant future now seemed in jeopardy. “She is so beautiful,” says ABC commentator Dick Button, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. “If it doesn’t work out, it will be a sinful waste of energy, time and talent.” Adds Bob Young, president of the International Skating Center: “She has to lessen the pressure by turning to the people—Galina, Viktor and Nina—who got her where she is.” But in fact the crash caused a rift between Baiul and her inner circle. “I don’t think they believe in me anymore,” she says, her voice trailing off to a whisper. (“I don’t want to talk about her at all,” says Petrenko.) Baiul and Zmievskaya parted ways in late March. “I know she loves me, and I love her so much, but it’s just not working,” says Baiul. “People who used to be behind me are not there for me now, and I feel like I’m alone. But I have to get on with my life.”

That life began in the bleak Ukrainian factory town of Dnepropetrovsk, where the Soviet Union once built missiles. Marina, a French teacher, split from Oksana’s father, Sergei, when their only child was a baby. “My mom always told me he was not alive,” Baiul says of her father. “[Later] I heard he was a really good man and that he had brought me things like candy, and my mom was always throwing them out the window.” Though Oksana saw him at her mother’s funeral, they have never spoken.

On Baiul’s fourth birthday, her maternal grandfather bought her skates. Once Baiul stepped on the ice, she writes in Oksana, she “never wanted to stop,” and within three years she was skating in local competitions. Shattered by her mother’s death, Oksana, then 13, lived briefly with her coach Stanislav Korytek and his family. But the next year he left to work in Canada. That was when Baiul was invited to Odessa to train with Zmievskaya. “I felt God was taking people away from me all the time, so I had to do something for myself,” she says. “I bought the train ticket, put my skates, a Snickers bar and a pair of jeans in a suitcase, and went. After that, my life turned upside down.”

It’s still a dizzying ride. On March 15, Baiul’s first public appearance since her crash—a charity benefit in Stamford, Conn.—turned into a fiasco. Thinking she was merely lending her name to the event, she skated once around the rink, went to sign autographs—and was booed by fans who had been told she would perform a full exhibition. Though blameless, Baiul fled in tears and flew back to L.A., where she had started training with Kawahara. Her Simsbury house is for sale, and she plans to train in the New York City suburb of Elmsford when the tour is over.

Baiul, who is getting standing ovations, has by all accounts renewed her enthusiasm for her career. Still, says Kawahara, “she really does live moment to moment. [She’s] volatile and changes quickly—she’s only 19.” And Baiul knows full well she’s still a work in progress. “I just want to build a new Oksana,” she says. “And right now, I’m getting there.”


ANNE LONGLEY in Simsbury