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Tai Babilonia is ‘at peace’ as she returns to Lake Placid

Tai Babilonia speaks Tuesday in Lake Placid at a press conference with other members of the 1980 Olympic U.S. figure skating team. (Enterprise photo — Andy Flynn)

LAKE PLACID — Tai Babilonia never hesitated.

When the call came in inviting her to Lake Placid for the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Olympics — the site of one of the most disappointing nights of her career, a place where she and partner Randy Gardner were supposed to medal but wound up being unable to compete — Babilonia didn’t think twice before accepting.

To her, a trip to the Adirondacks this week was therapy.

“I’m at peace with what happened,” said Babilonia, now 60. “I can’t run away from it. It’s our history.”

Babilonia and Gardner were the reigning world champions and five-time defending U.S. champions in pairs skating, and their event on Feb. 16, 1980, in Lake Placid was supposed to be a showdown that would draw parallels to the backstory of the U.S. hockey game against the Soviet Union less than a week later. Babilonia and Gardner would be dueling that night against the powerhouse Soviet couple of Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaytsev.

Gardner, though, was hurt less than two weeks earlier. He tried to skate through the groin injury the night of the competition, but basically couldn’t stay upright even in warmups. Babilonia and Gardner had to withdraw, and the Soviets cruised to gold.

It haunted the Americans for years, maybe decades, maybe still does.

“I knew in my heart I wanted to come back and thank this beautiful town of Lake Placid,” Babilonia said as she appeared with other members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic figure skating team. “That night was so confusing. I’m sad that the town and all of you helped us to get through it. And so that’s why I’m back.

“I embrace what happened. I know it sounds crazy, with the injury and withdrawing and you know, but that’s our history. That’s our story. Over the years and through a lot of therapy, I have learned to embrace that incredibly crazy evening. Everything happens for a reason, and there’s nothing you can do.”

That evening was just the start of a lot of nights that were very difficult for Babilonia to handle — sometimes, nights that were too difficult.

Babilonia and Gardner — Tai and Randy, most simply called them, and the Los Angeles Times once referred to them as TaiandRandy in a way to show how inseparable they were — turned pro after the 1980 Olympics. They were stars in the Ice Capades, but Babilonia soon was facing serious demons. She battled depression, abused alcohol and pills and tried to commit suicide in 1988.

She doesn’t hide from any aspect of her story.

“I do motivational speaking to high school students and junior high school students to inspire people, especially kids,” Babilonia said. “There’s so much going on for the teenagers and they’re kind of all over the place. They learn to set goals and I tell them, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. There were some crappy days.”

This week’s celebration of the 40th anniversary in Lake Placid was not among them.

Gardner chose not to attend — “he has his reasons and no one should judge,” Babilonia said — so she was without her partner in Lake Placid. But he was there with her for the 25th anniversary in 2005, and they finally skated on the Olympic Center ice that night.

“I got my closure,” Babilonia said. “I just wanted more. And I’m very happy to be back.”

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