The dream was shattered, the hopes of two young lifetimes blown away in a moment, and now she sat in a strange house in a strange town, puzzling about what had happened. Her dad was guarding the door, his Los Angeles Police Department's sergeant's badge pinned to his belt. Nobody was to come in. Nearby, Grandma Margery was cooking country ham and eggs for breakfast, occasionally commenting on life's bitter breaks and waving a spatula in sympathy. The girl looked up. " President Carter called last night," she said. "Wanted to say he was sorry, I think."
"Nothing he could do about it, but it was a nice thought," her dad said. "We would've called him back, but he didn't leave his number."
Outside the house an anxious world and an intrusive press wanted to know what had happened the night before, in a moment that would surely prove to be the melodramatic highlight of the Lake Placid Olympics. The impact had been stunning: Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia had dropped out of the pairs competition—Randy drawn up in pain, Tai in tears—and millions of people the world over, who had settled in to watch figure skating's most dramatic confrontation on television, were dumbstruck.
Looking back on it last Saturday morning, watching Babilonia toying absently with her braids and staring down at her boots, a sense of frustration set in. It would be hard to tell all of this without sounding maudlin and perhaps overwrought. There was a sense of being caught up in a sporting soap opera, but it was all too real.
More than any of the 1,400 Olympic athletes assembled at Lake Placid, Gardner and Babilonia had represented something special—glamour, surely, plus a touch of being kid brother and sister to those of their countrymen who had watched them win five national championships and the 1979 world title. They were both elegant and athletic, a rare balance in this sport, and at long last they would come face to face with the Soviets, who have dominated pair skating for 29 years. The showdown set for the Olympics had all the earmarks of skating's most memorable confrontation. Besides, this would be the last go-round. Gardner, 21, and Babilonia, 19, had devoted much of their lives to this moment, 11 years to be exact. For them there would be no more Olympics.
The injury that led to last Friday night's withdrawal seemed inconsequential when it happened two weeks ago; Gardner pulled the abductor muscle high inside his right thigh in a training session at the pair's home rink in Santa Monica. But it had apparently healed, and when the two started their final shakedowns in Lake Placid, Gardner felt strong. "We made some key changes in our exercise after the nationals in Atlanta," he said, "and now we're ready to get it on."
But last Wednesday, in the next-to-last workout before the compulsory short program, Gardner did an easy jump—"the most routine of moves," said Coach John A. W. Nicks—and the muscle suddenly popped again. Another muscle in Gardner's groin went with it. Nicks called off Thursday night's practice session, and, working in secret in the Olympic Village, doctors tried deep massage and ice treatments.
"We knew then that it would be hard for him to pull off any explosive moves," said Dr. Anthony Daly, the U.S. Olympic team physician. Daly also began thinking about administering an 11th-hour numbing shot, "a last-ditch effort," in case it was needed.
But there are very few secrets in an Olympics, and soon after the practice session was called off the press corps began spreading the rumor of trouble. Nicks denied it, pointing out that the practice had been set for 11 p.m. and that his pair needed rest more than workouts. But he told a friend, "I think we've got a little problem here."
It was at that point that the drama began to take on hellish proportions. Back in Los Angeles, Babilonia's maternal grandmother died, and word was phoned to Lake Placid. Babilonia's dad, Constancio, agonized and decided, at least for the moment, not to tell his daughter about it. Nor would he tell his wife, Cleo, who had been tense all week, wearing an I'm-all-right-but-please-don't-touch-me look. Connie Babilonia, an otherwise tough and hardened detective assigned to auto theft in Los Angeles, hid his emotions whenever Tai and Cleo were around. Later he said sadly, "You know, sometimes I have trouble remembering her name exactly, Cleo's mom. It seems odd, I know, but it's a matter of affection. She was very, very old, you see, and for years we had all just called her Grandma."