Jeff Pearlman

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Tai Babilonia

#355
She's a two-time Olympian and five-time U.S. Figure Skating champion. But along with the world's coolest name, this legendary athlete can boast nine years of sobriety. Now that's golden. POSTED April 13, 2018

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Tai Babilonia is one of the greatest figure skaters in United States history.

Along with Randy Gardner, she won the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships, as well as five U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Along with Randy Gardner, she also qualified for both the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympics.

But here’s the funky thing—when it comes to today’s magical 355th Quaz, I truly care about two things. First, that by being anointed Tai Babilonia, Tai Babilonia is owner of one of the coolest names in the history of modern society. Second, that she has been sober for nine years, and uses her battle with alcoholism to help others.

Skating, by comparison, hardly rates. Which isn’t to take away from Tai’s accomplishments. They’re impressive and wonderful, and have stood the test of athletic time. It’s just, well, athletes come and go. But perfectly-named, civic-minded heroes are as rare as gold dust on Lake Mahopac.

I digress.

In today’s Quaz, Tai digs deeply into her sobriety, as well as her lifetime kinship with Gardner. She talks skate smells, “Get Out,” giving back and why Jimmy Carter rates higher than Willie McGee.

One can follow Tai on Twitter here, Instagram here and visit her Wikipedia page here.

Tai Babilonia, to hell with the Olympics. You’re No. 355 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Tai, I’m gonna start with a random one—you’re name is Tai Babilonia. Which is an all-time fantastic name. Memorable, funky, cool, unique. How has that changed your life? What I mean is, if you were Joan Smith, or Jennifer Daniels, is your life different? Would there have been an anonymity you would have liked? Disliked? Is that just dumb? 

TAI BABILONIA: Thank you, Jeff. It is definitely unique and many think it’s a made-up fake/stage name. The story goes that when I was born my parents couldn’t think of a name and were actually fighting about it in the hospital. So my godfather, who is Japanese (and the person who introduced me to skating when I was 6) simply told my parents, “We will name her Tai. End of story.” Regarding anonymity, nah—I love the attention, always have and always will. I appreciate it and take nothing for granted.

J.P.: A couple of weeks ago Sasha Cohen wrote an amazing New York Times editorial about life after the Olympics and competitive skating. How for so many it’s a hard dose of “Who am I?” and “What am I?” She said that so much of your identity is tied into sport, and now … where do you go? How real is that? How much did you feel? 

T.B.: I will always be identified as figure skater and I’m absolutely fine with that. Randy and I had an amazing professional career that we are still enjoying to this day. For me what got confusing was being identified as Tai and Randy. Friends would even joke that TaiAndRandy had become one name. It was fine when I was younger but when I got into my late 20s and early 30s, I truly didn’t know who Tai Babilonia was and didn’t know how to separate the pair team from me as Tai alone. It got very complicated because I wasn’t sure if I could even function on my own.

It scared the shit out of me but with lots of therapy I was able to figure it all out and understand that I was very capable of venturing out on my own. It’s funny because I’ll talk about Tai and Randy in the third person sometimes. They are two separate family members to me. I know it’s crazy but you gotta do what you gotta do to get through the day.

J.P.: There has been much talk this year about “I, Tonya.” Well, 27 years before its release the TV film, “On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story” aired. So, I’m fascinated: How did you feel about it? Was it accurate? Good? You were played by Rachael Crawford. Is it weird to have someone depict … you? Did she accomplish it?

T.B.: I haven’t seen “I, Tonya” and I have no desire to. “On Thin Ice” was an interesting and surreal movie of the week project that actually came about from a People magazine cover story. NBC approached my then-manager and me and a deal was put together. It was filmed in Toronto and I was on set for most of the scenes as a consultant. Some scenes were difficult for me to watch but I would just step off set and come back when that particular scene was finished.

Casting was tricky because of my multi racial (Filipino, black and Hopi Indian) heritage. I think the casting director did an amazing job but I know it wasn’t easy. The actors also had to learn how to skate (a little bit) They had to cast three Tais—an 8-year old, a 12-year old and an 18-year old. It was all just so bazaar. I thought the Canadian actor Rachel Crawford, who played older Tai, did a fantastic job of portraying me. We spent a few days together before filming started and she would study my every move and wanted know about my life away from the ice. She tapped into my quirkiness and sense of humor, too.

The actors who played the two younger Tais did an awesome job as well. I was so impressed. Both Randy and I were hired as the skating doubles for the older Tai and Randy. See how bazaar it was? Lol! The icing on the cake was that the beautiful actor Denise Nicholas, who played my mom Cleo, was the star of “Room 222″—one of my favorite TV shows in the 1970s. And to top it off the legendary actor William Daniels played our skating coach, Mr. Nicks, and knocked it outta the frickin’ ballpark. He nailed it!  My life packed into 95 minutes. Not bad, not bad at all.

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J.P.: I just watched a very moving news piece from three years ago about your battles with alcoholism. You’re now nine years sober, and I wonder: Why alcohol? Like, what brought it on? What led you to drinking? And was there a moment when you knew you had a problem?

T.B.: Yes, I’m nine years sober and I’m so proud of myself for that. It has been a long time coming and it is one of the best and smartest decisions I’ve ever made. I really had no choice, it was time to stop the madness.

My drinking started back in 1981—my first year with the No. 1 touring show in America, “The Ice Capades.” Tai and Randy (see, I just did that third-person thing) were the headliners. It was a three-year contract and we performed nine months out of the year with one day off a week. It’s showtime, baby!

I remember turning 21 on a bus ride to Pittsburgh. It was a rock and roll lifestyle and I was just doing what all the other pros skaters were doing, never knowing that I had an addictive personality and that I would one day end up falling through the cracks … falling hard. There is so much more to this chapter in my life but I think i I’ll save it for when I write my memoirs. Maybe I’ll call that chapter “Lived ToTell.”

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J.P.: You qualified for the 1976 and 1980 Winter Olympics. And I wonder—in hindsight—is the payoff worth the cost? What I mean is, hours upon hours upon hours devoted to the singular task of ice skating. Other kids were hanging with friends, trying new things, movies and bowling and sleepovers and dates. And you were, largely skating. Was it worth it?

T.B.: It was all absolutely worth it and I wouldn’t change a thing. (Well, maybe one thing). I knew at an early age that I wanted to make the commitment to this sport and it wasn’t to win but to work hard and be the best that I could be and Randy and I just happened to usually win. Most of my friends were skaters from the ice rink and it was great because we all had the same thing in common—we loved to skate. We had sleepovers, movies, a little puppy love dating in our teenage years. This was the norm for me. I was obsessed with skating as a child, I loved being at the ice rink to the point where I was the one dragging my parents out of bed at 4 am to get me to the ice rink on time so I could practice. The ice rink was—and still to this day is—my safe place. But once I’m outside the ice rink, it’s fair game.

J.P.: What is it like when you’re skating at the highest level, and everything is clicking? Like, you’re at your best, doing something better than everyone else?

T.B.: It’s a complete out-of-body experience. It happened to us in 1979 when we became world champions. Like you said, it all clicked. We had trained our asses off and we were in peak condition. Are off-ice training was sometimes just as intense as our on-ice training. We trained at an ice rink in Santa Monica (Sidebar: where they filmed the famous Rocky skating scene—I was there and got to watch) just a few blocks from the beach, so after our practices on ice Randy and I would go to the beach and run/sprint in the sand with weights around our ankles. Burn, baby, burn. It was truly a group effort from our dance teachers, off-ice trainers, our skating coach Mr. Nicks and, of course, the incredible support and sacrificing from our families. Everyone won that night. It takes a village.

Randy and Tai in 2013

Randy and Tai in 2013

J.P.: When you came along, figure skating was a very white sport. Then here’s Tai—part African-American, part Filipino, part Native American. Do you feel like that sorta rubbed any of the establishment wrongly? Was there any hostility? Any, “Stay in your lane” sorta thinking/expression from others?

T.B.: I never ever felt any hostility at all when I competed. I did once in a while see people look at my family (especially when we are all together) with a very confused looks on their faces. We definitely stood out among the skating crowd that was predominantly white at that time. Remember, this was in the early 1970s when you didn’t see many multi-ethnic families, especially in the skating world. People will put me in whatever ethnic box they want but I knew at an early age I had to go out on the ice and get the job done. As I got older I understood the impact I had on up-and-coming skaters of color. I’m very proud of that.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

T.B.: For the greatest, I have a few. First, fulfilling my dream of becoming an Olympian (twice), being crowned World Pair Champions in 1979 and being by the side of the legend/barrier breaker (and the woman who is responsible for creating the pair team of Tai and Randy back in 1968) Mabel Fairbanks as she made history by being the first (and so far only) black skating coach inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall Of Fame in 1997. This was a huge for Mabel and I was so honored to walk her onto the ice so she could receive her award. The crowd went crazy and she had finally gotten the respect she deserved.

Lowest? Back in 1988 I was lying in an ambulance on my way to Cedars Sinai while getting my stomach pumped and puking my guts out. This part of my life is well documented in print and in the TV movie. I’ll leave it at that.

Back in 2012 with Measia Aaron at the Downtown On Ice outdoor skating rink at Pershing Square.

Back in 2012 with Measia Aaron at the Downtown On Ice outdoor skating rink at Pershing Square.

J.P.: Does it matter how one feels about his/her partner? Obviously you were known as a tandem with Randy Gardner. Did it matter if you liked each other? Do you have to be friends? Can you be enemies?

T.B.: Yes, you absolutely must be friends, and—more then anything—trust and respect each other. Having the same goals also helps, too. We made the commitment from the day we were told to hold hands at 8- and 10-years old and here we are today, 50 years later, still holding hands. Okay, I just got weepy. Happy Tears! #TaiAndRandy

J.P.: Can you actually skate for fun? What I mean is, can you show up at a rink, rent some skates for $10 and have a good time? Can you goof around? Hold hands and listen to Drake blaring over the speakers? Or was that taken from you? I get asked this question quite a bit. Do you ever just skate for fun?

T.B.: Yes, I do if I’m taking a friend to skate for the first time. That’s really fun. But to go out and skate now on my own for fun? At my age, no. It’s my job. I will always love skating, it’s in my blood. The less I do it the more I appreciate it. Words from the wise …

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TAI BABILONIA:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Camila Cabello, Peggy Fleming, Willie McGee, pumpkin scones, Lake Placid, “Get Out,” Kobe Bryant, Coupe des Alpes, Jimmy Carter, Rocky IV, the Museum of Natural History: Peggy Fleming, Jimmy Carter, The Museum Of Natural History, Lake Placid, Kobe Bryant, Get Out, Willie McGee, Rocky IV, Camila Cabello, Coupe des Alpes, Pumpkin Scones.

• Four all-time favorite books: A Snowy Day, To Kill A Mockingbird, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir Of The Movement by John Lewis and The Four Agreements.

• I just bought $15 sneakers at Costco. On a scale of 1 to 100, how big of a mistake was this?: You can never make a mistake at Costco! Never!

• One question you would ask Lil Yachty were he here right now: Does he want to learn how to ice skate? I’m serious! #LilYachtyOnIce

• Three memories from your appearance on an episode of “Hart to Hart.”: (1) Watching Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner pretty much do every scene in one or two takes. (I watched and I learned); (2) Driving a fancy brand new red Corvette in one of my scenes; (3) Oh, a scene where we’re being shot at by the bad guy and hiding behind the Zamboni with Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner.

• The world needs to know: What did Randy Gardner’s skates smell like?: A two-time Olympian and world champion type of smell :)

• Worst ice fall you ever experienced?: Being dropped on a lift by Randy in 1975. Ouch!

• Five things that make you insanely happy?: (1) My sobriety (2) My family (3) Watching my son Scout mature and become a young man (4) My longtime partnership with Randy Gardner and (5) giving back to my community, I feed the homeless once a week in Hollywood and also motivational speaking to students at local junior high schools in the Los Angeles area.

• I can’t stand Donald Trump, and now my blood pressure is super high. What should I do?: Go ice skating and just know that ‘it’ (I don’t even want to type his filthy name) will be gone soon. #Resist #Breathe

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life