A Champion's Slide
Women's figure skating, that strange sequined world with one blade in sport and the other in showbiz, has, despite booming ticket sales and TV ratings, not had a good time of it lately. Nancy Kerrigan, America's icy darling, has been on skating's equivalent of maternity leave since October. Tonya Harding has announced she is returning to competition, thus assuring the return of full-scale tabloid coverage too. And Oksana Baiul, the 1994 Olympic gold medalist who has not won a substantive competition since Lillehammer, is out of shape and possibly out of control.
At about 2:30 on the morning of Jan. 13, the 19-year-old Baiul crashed her green Mercedes into a cluster of trees in Bloomfield, Conn., a few miles from her home in Simsbury. Twelve stitches were needed to close a gash in the back of her head. Baiul, whose blood alcohol level was .168, well above the .10 legal limit—and who is two years below Connecticut's legal drinking age—was reportedly recuperating at her home at week's end. Baiul, who is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 27 to face a DUI charge, declined to speak to SI. Meanwhile, the 1997 Tour of World Figure Skating Champions, of which she was the female star, skates on without her, and a children's book about her life (Oksana Baiul: My Own Story) is due out this week.
Is Baiul heading for a big fall, like that of another prodigy, Jennifer Capriati? The danger signs are there. Some skating officials feel that Baiul, an orphan who was born in the Ukraine, is in desperate need of guidance and direction. She lives alone and has rebelled against her coach, Galina Zmievskaia, an intimidating she-bear of a woman who often travels on the tour. Baiul's representatives at the William Morris Agency don't get much involved in her private life; Shelly Schultz, Baiul's agent, while expressing concern, says that her client "hasn't shaved her head or gotten a bunch of tattoos," as if that fact were a reliable index of stability.
Since Lillehammer, Baiul has grown five inches and put on 10 pounds, and her skating has yet to catch up. Tour sources say that over the last year Baiul has trained haphazardly and displayed little of the discipline that made her a champion. One can only hope that for Baiul, and the people who care about her, the run-in with the trees will be a start to getting her out of the woods.
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