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She is holding nothing back, laughing like, well, you hate to say it, but like a braying mule. Oksana Baiul, 16, the youngest women's world figure skating champion since the legendary Sonja Henie, clutches her sides and rocks back and forth, howling with infectious mirth. Her mouth, you fear, might come unhinged. Her lips are pulled back from her upper gums and teeth. It is pure, uninhibited girlish laughter, wondrous to behold.
Life, you are thinking. After going the extra mile to heap sadness after sadness on this wide-eyed, green-eyed, coltish adolescent, life has done an about-face. She is happy.
The woman eliciting the laughter from Baiul is her coach and surrogate mother, Galina Zmievskaya. She is discussing the peculiar elation they both feel at being back in Odessa after touring the United States. "We walk down the street, see a line of shoppers, and we immediately feel joy to be home," Zmievskaya says. "We are fighting each other to get ahead of the next person. This is great fun for us, and we have this kind of luck every day. Swinging our bags, clawing our way to the front. Then we leave with a piece of sausage."
Zmievskaya pauses, allowing the translator to catch up and Baiul's laughter to subside. "So we have pity on you," she continues. "You don't get these joys in America. You don't know the happiness, after a period of no hot water for three weeks, to turn on the faucet and get hot water! So we have some advantages, you see, in our system."
Zmievskaya is not ordinarily known as a humorist. She has the reputation, rather, of being a she-bear, stern and fiercely protective of Baiul, particularly around the press, who have been descending on Ukraine from the four corners of the globe ever since the 5'4", 103-pound teen turned the figure skating world topsy-turvy by winning, in her first appearance, the world championship in Prague last March.
So protective is Zmievskaya that she sits in on each interview with her pupil, steering the questions away from Baiul's unhappy past. What good can come of it? she reasons. The past is past. Why not let the child get on with her life? Always the press is trying to ask Oksana about the sad things, the things that make her cry. The reporters ask about her mother, Marina, a French teacher who died of ovarian cancer when Oksana was 13. What teenager can talk of such things over and over again? Or they ask about her grandmother, who helped raise her in the industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk and died when Oksana was eight. Or her grandfather, also dead, who bought Oksana her first pair of skates when she was three so she might lose some weight and, someday, study ballet.
Or they ask about her father, whom Oksana doesn't know. At first, when she won at the worlds, it was reported that her father had died when she was two, that Baiul was an orphan. Later, however, it was learned that her father and her mother may have simply separated when Oksana was two. Either way, he dropped out of his daughter's life.
Or they ask about her former coach, Stanislav Korytek, who had worked with Baiul since she was five. Nine years he had coached her. She had lived with Korytek for the first weeks after her mother died. Then, unexpectedly, while she was away at a skating competition and on the brink of stardom, Korytek slipped off to Canada to make a new life for himself at the Toronto Skating, Curling and Cricket Club, leaving Oksana behind. How much more could a child be expected to take? Would there be any constancy in her life?
"He just bought a ticket and left," Baiul says, without bitterness. "He called me afterward to tell me, and I understood his position. Everyone wants to eat."
Everyone, too, wants a home. Even an eventual world champion. It was Zmievskaya who finally gave a home to Baiul. The coach of 1992 Olympic gold medalist Viktor Petrenko, Zmievskaya was prevailed upon by Korytek after he emigrated to take Baiul on as a pupil. Zmievskaya, who lives in Odessa, 12 hours by train from Dnepropetrovsk, did more than that. She took Baiul, then 14, into her three-room apartment to raise as if she were one of her own children. Zmievskaya's older daughter, 19-year-old Nina, would soon be moving out to marry Petrenko, so Oksana could share a room with Zmievskaya's 12-year-old, also named Galina.