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How's this for a strange combination of names? lie is Randy Gardner. Nothing at all exotic there; yon can hang your hat on a name like that. Bui, ah, she is Tai Reina Babilonia. Say it and the very sound raises images of almond eyes and finger cymbals and folks lounging around eating grapes from the tips of daggers. The matching of Gardner-Babilonia doesn't seem quite right at first—top-heavy, maybe—but, as it turns out, Randy and Tai are perfectly matched; they are the most formidable pair in U.S. figure skating history, five times the national champions and current world champs. Together, they make up two of the sport's top four prospects for a gold medal at the Winter Olympics starting next week. The other two are the Soviet pair, Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev. This comes as no surprise, because the other two are always the Soviet pair. They come with the franchise. It promises to be a classic confrontation.
Fair enough. If the U.S. has ever been ready for such a showdown, this is the moment. The Gardner-Babilonia team has been 11 years in the making, on the ice rinks of California and the world. Both are Los Angeles-area natives, Randy from Ladera Heights, Tai from Mission Hills. Randy is 21 now, a part-time USC student. Tai is 19 and restless, poised between high school and whatever happens next; maybe college, maybe not. This Olympic shot is likely to be their last and best. Randy has constant lower-back pain—"we'd like to knock off and play a little while our bodies are still functioning," he says. "We've been missing a lot of regular-people life," says Tai.
Pair skaters must perform as mirror images; they work together so closely, with so little time for anything but training, it is no wonder that most pairs are in love, engaged, married or brother and sister. Randy and Tai don't fit into any of those categories; heck, they don't even figure they've got to stop meeting like this. The way Tai sees it, their relationship goes beyond all the others.
"We're like boyfriend and girlfriend, but we're not that," she says. Does that explain it? Randy nods in agreement—he has postponed all serious dating until, say, Monday, Feb. 18, the day after their event in the Olympics. But Tai is serious about getting this just right. "It's like being husband and wife in a way," she says, "and sometimes like being brother and sister—but we're not that, either." Does that make it any clearer? Well, then: "It's, um, it's like being best friends," she says, "but it goes way beyond that, too." Understand? Exactly.
At 5'8" and 145 pounds, Randy looks ascetic and coolly handsome, even slightly consumptive in just the right light. Randy's serious look speaks of nobody-knows-the-trouble-I've-seen, and when he smiles, he appears considerably less than ferocious. It is all sham.
The hard fact is that Randy is all pulled together, with roughly 45 miles of pure sinew. He is enormously strong and quick; if dropped headfirst from the roof of a rink, he would land on his skates every time. It is a further measure of his deception that, going full blast, he does elegantly flowing things with his fingertips, beckoning Tai to his side. And then, with what seems to be the merest bit of backspin, he throws her over the Zamboni. Tai spends a lot of time high in the air, looking down at the crowd. She and Randy have introduced a daring and graceful new dimension to the sport, which is all the more gutty because it isn't absolutely necessary. They could rely on bits and pieces of more balletic fluff, full of swoops and slow spins; play a safer game to ensure a medal, as their arch rivals, the Soviet pair, do. "Rodnina doesn't even land by herself," says Tai. "I mean, every time he picks her up, he always just gently puts her back down."
Not Gardner-Babilonia. Tai is 5'5" and weighs 115 pounds, although she looks and photographs taller. More trickery. It is now a familiar phenomenon in skating that whenever Randy picks up Tai, everybody watching involuntarily flinches; something bold is about to happen. And when it works—when Tai lands perfectly on that right outside edge—folks somehow feel much better for it, as if they had just looked into the eye of the sport.
With all this, it figures that Randy and Tai will go for it all, right off, when the music starts at Lake Placid. After hitting top speed, Randy'll wave Tai in—and then flip her up and away in a throw double axel. She'll spin, rhinestones ablaze, through 2½ turns, picking up speed from right to left, then land lightly, going backward. It will all happen in a blink—a 20-foot toss. "It's a big opener," Randy says with a shrug. "Gets their attention," says Tai. And John A. W. Nicks, their coach, admits it is the grand gamble.
"The prospects for a fall are appalling," he says. "Other skaters can do the throw double axel, but nobody in the world today can do it as far or as fast as Randy and Tai. It's dangerous; if they blow it, they could blow the Olympics. At that speed, it's like throwing somebody off a train. She would probably slide into the boards and might not be able to catch up."
But mostly they do it successfully and, at this point, with roughly 4½ minutes to go in a five-minute exercise, they sure as shootin' have got everybody's attention. Then come a lot more moves in quick sequence: spins and jumps and flips with strange names and, somewhere in all this, the one-arm star lift. That takes a bit of explanation.