BACKSTAGE AT AN ICE RINK IN SUN Valley, Idaho, Oksana Baiul is psyching up to do her “dying swan” at the U.S. Ladies Outdoor Skating Challenge for CBS. Everyone is tiptoeing around her. But suddenly the skater points at a TV monitor and screams, “Arnold! Arnold is coming!” On the screen, Arnold Schwarzenegger is marching past the cheering crowd at the rink on his way in to meet her.
When Baiul is introduced, her large eyes become saucers. “I’m a big fan of yours,” Schwarzenegger tells the pintsize Olympic gold medal winner. “I hear you injured your knee, had surgery and two days later skated again?”
Baiul giggles and nods, but words fail her. Schwarzenegger tries a little more small talk. Finally, he gives her a hug and a kiss. “Good luck!” he says, leaving the awestruck teenager to collapse on the sofa, where she finally summons a response: gales of laughter.
Such attention is still new to 16-year-old Baiul, whose painful shyness often reduces her voice to a whisper. But the waiflike skater from Ukraine, who charmed millions at the 1994 Olympics, better get used to it. November and December feature a virtual Oksana Baiul TV blitz. All four networks have scheduled figure-skating competitions, starting with CBS’s Ice Wars: The U.S.A. vs. the World on Nov. 9 and 12, in which Baiul will skate against Nancy Kerrigan, among others.
Baiul’s Olympic victory over Kerrigan provided a welcome reprieve from the Tonya Harding soap opera. But it developed its own edge when Kerrigan was overheard before the medal ceremony griping about how long it was taking Baiul to redo her makeup. Yet Baiul insists there is no bitterness between them. She says they recently went shopping together. “I never had a fight with Nancy,” says Baiul. “It’s crazy what people say.”
It’s just one more wrinkle in Baiul’s moving life story—packaged as a TV movie, A Promise Kept, to be aired Nov. 13 by the indefatigable CBS—which is that of a little girl who is abandoned by her father at 2 and loses her mother to cancer at 13. After Baiul’s mother’s death, Baiul’s coach, Stanislav Koritek, became her guardian. A year later he too decamped. Fortunately for Baiul, she hooked up with Galina Zmievskaya, who coaches 1992 Olympic gold medalist Viktor Petrenko. At the urging of Petrenko, who is married to her daughter Nina, Zmievskaya took Baiul in.
“There is a sense of sadness to Oksana,” says Petrenko, near whom Baiul lives while training in Simsbury, Conn., outside Hartford. “But she tries to keep it inside. All the attention Oksana is getting is kind of pushing her now.”
The truth is, Baiul inhales attention. “I love the fact that I’m noticed on the streets,” she says. “When I had my knee injury [she had arthroscopic surgery Sept. 27 after dislocating her kneecap], people in Sun Valley sent me flowers and presents.”
Baiul is clearly a hot commodity. She and the William Morris Agency select her projects to cultivate an image of elegance. She is helping to design a line of skating togs for Elite Sportswear and is considering a three-book deal (her life story, a figure-skating history and a children’s title).
With her appearance fees and TV deals, Baiul is making a more than comfortable living. “Yes,” says agent Michael Carlisle, “Oksana has discovered Versace.” But he says that Baiul is handling her newfound wealth “in a quiet way.” Baiul admits to splurging on expensive perfume and cosmetics. But money, she says, “is not what’s driving me.”
Coach Zmievskaya, though, is not above motivating her student with monetary rewards. To get Baiul to practice on days when she would rather dance to her favorite Madonna tune, Zmievskaya bribes her with money or new tennis shoes. “Oksana always likes to win,” she says. “But if she doesn’t get the jump right, or won’t do it, she has to pay me.”
How competitive is Baiul? Later in the day at Sun Valley, after bringing down the house with her dying swan, she races back to her hotel room for a game of Monopoly (the Russian version) with Nina Petrenko.
“Oksana always wins,” says Nina, rolling her eyes.
Says the little capitalist: “I love to take all their money.”
CATHY FREE in Sun Valley