Figure skating, watched by more viewers than any other event at the Winter Olympics, is a sport with the power to create household names overnight.
In the 1970’s, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner were America’s dream team, winning five U.S. Figure Skating Championships and heavy favorites to unseat the Russians in pairs skating at the 1980 Winter Olympics when disaster struck: Gardner suffered a devastating injury — and the exquisite skating pair was forced to withdraw from competition.
That unfortunate moment might have been the most notable aspect of Randy Gardner’s and Tai Babilonia’s nearly five-decade career on ice, were it not for the dramatic experiences each of them endured off of the ice. “Go Figure: The Randy Gardner Story,” which opens at the opens at the Delaware Theater Company on January 17, reminds us that performances of world class athletic talent are only part of their life stories. The show includes Gardner, Babilonia and Olympic figure skating royalty, gold medalist Dorothy Hamill.
TSD caught up with Gardner, one of the legends of figure skating, to get a sneak peek about the show and his life.
TSD: So many in Delaware remember you and Tai visiting to The Skating Club of Wilmington to perform in the ice show in the spring of 1976, after the Olympics where Dorothy Hamill won Gold. Dorothy Hamill also came to Delaware that same year because beloved Delaware sculptor Charles Parks unveiled a bronze that he created which was inspired by Hamill. Not long after, this state became a world class ice skating training Mecca. What are your memories of that first visit to the First State, and were you surprised to see Delaware develop into such a serious center of skating excellence?
RG: Tai and I would go back to Wilmington and train with Ron Luddington, one of the top coaches at the time, to work on specific moves, like twists and throws. There were so many great pair teams training there at the time, it created a great training ground and perfect place to share knowledge and learn from other teams. We created some life-long friendships while in Wilmington. And, going there gave me some my first memories of visiting Philadelphia, a truly amazing and historical city.
TSD: Tell us about your first exposure to ice skating – how did you come to focus on the sport?
RG: My parents would bring to ice shows when I was young. We would go to all the shows; Ice Capades, Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice. When I started to skate at age 7, after watching those shows, I knew I’d end up in one of them. And sure enough, Tai and I debuted with Ice Capades in April of 1980. And I was always watching skating on TV, namely the Olympics, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Then one day, my dad took me and a few friends to a public session in Culver City and I was hooked!
TSD: How did you meeting Tai Babilonia change your life? And how do two people share the same goals and stay on the same path for so many years?
RG: Well, this year we are celebrating 50 years of skating together! There is a lot of this in the show. But, I will say that we were not so keen on skating pairs at the ages of 10 and 8 years old. A key ingredient to our years together is trust, understand, compromise and shared passion.
TSD: The first to coach you and Tai Babilonia as a pair was African American figure skater Mabel Fairbanks (let us know if that is incorrect), who was not allowed to compete in any Olympic qualifying events but became a world class Hall of Fame figure skater. Where were in your career when you met Fairbanks? And please talk about her influence on your success as a pair.
RG: Yes, Mabel Fairbanks was our first teacher and she’s the one that paired us. She always made the kids (us included) feel that they could accomplish anything. She had a great personality and a brilliant smile and a perfect outlook in life.
TSD: You yourself carried a heavy emotional burden during your three-decade career with Babilonia. The prospect of discrimination, at the least, and losing valuable endorsements caused you to shield your sexual identity from your fans and the world. Did you feel you owed it to Tai to remain in the closet? Was that the right decision?
RG: It was an undisclosed situation and not really my choice. It was a different time in America. However, close friends knew, Tai definitely knew, my parents did not, or at least I didn’t think so. In the show i cover the coming out process, the reaction my parents had, which resulted in being sent to Reparative Therapy. I was one of the lucky ones that made it through, luckily. I give a fairly descriptive missive during the show, mixed in with a little humor.
TSD: Artistic expression, athleticism, technical challenges, musical interpretation, showmanship… Is there any one aspect to skating that motivates or inspires your performances the most?
RG: I truly believe all those things work together. Most of us excel in just a few of them, but learn to develop the others. Music moves me, performing gets me excited and athleticism gets the endorphins moving, for sure.
TSD: Figure skating doesn’t seem to have the broad cross-over popularity as a generation ago – perhaps because there are so many more sports and entertainment options today. What is your perspective about that?
RG: I think figure skating needs a good solid champion out there. One that fans can get to know, follow their career, grow up with them, so to speak. The last one really was Michelle Kwan. And I also believe that a champion needs to continue into professional skating, tour as much as possible, and let the fans continue with them on their journey.
TSD: Of course you have written a book about your life and are taking that on the road. Are you involved with other projects?
RG: The Randy Gardner School of Skating is a learn to skate program which runs every year at ICE At Santa Monica. I also coach competitive skaters, which I love, as I can pay it forward to the next generation!
“Go Figure: The Randy Gardner Story” runs Wednesday, January 17th through Sunday, January 28th. To celebrate the show, DTC and the cast will host a “Family Skate with the Stars” evening at Wilmington’s Riverfront Rink, at 308 Justison Street on Mon, Jan 15, from 6-8 pm. Admission for adults is $8.50; kids $5.50 and skate rental is $4.00. DTC show tickets will also be available for purchase onsite. A portion of the event’s proceeds will benefit Delaware Theatre Company.