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Skating champ hits the RRRink

Tai Babilonia, the female member of the five-time gold medal-winning U.S. Figure Skating Pairs Champions, wasn't wearing her skates Tuesday afternoon when she dropped by the RRRink in Medford for a surprise visit.

But the next time she steps out onto the ice with members of the Southern Oregon Figure Skating Club, she will be laced up, ready to stroke and glide. That's a promise, Babilonia said.

"For the kids, of course I'll put my skates on," she said.

Babilonia, 49, and partner Randy Gardner retired this year after 40 years together as one of skating's most beloved pairs skaters. Last month, the female side of the world-renowned team relocated to the Ashland from Los Angeles with her fiance, comedian David Brenner.

"I moved to Ashland for peace of mind," she said.

And, now that she's settled in one area, Babilonia is looking forward to helping young Rogue Valley skaters fulfill their potential. She wants to work with the club, the skaters and the coaches, Babilonia said.

"I just want to help however I can. I'm good at polishing," she said.

Babilonia appears as lithe and lovely as she did in 1979 when she and Gardner won the World Figure Skating Championship. Their dizzying display of triple lutzes, twist lifts, and their signature move — a series of pull Arabian cartwheels, wowed crowds. The duo dazzled judges with their strength, agility and grace. In 1975, they were one of the youngest set of pair skaters to compete at the world championship. Four years later, they were the only the second U.S. pair to win the event since its 1908 inception.

Just a few months later, they were gold medal favorites at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

(See correction note below)

But, during their warm-up session, Gardner fell hard. Millions of viewers watched the pair leave the ice when it was announced that Gardner could not compete due to a groin injury. Gardner appeared dejected. Babilonia looked stunned.

Though their Olympic dreams were dashed in that moment, they never discussed the disappointment, Babilonia said.

"We'd never talked about it together," she said.

Instead, they read about each other's feelings in a recently published book about their partnership, "Forever Two as One."

The author, Martha Lowder Kimball, wisely decided to interview each half of the pair separately, Babilonia said. It allowed them to discuss their more painful memories without feeling quite so protective of each other, she said.

"People wanted me to be mad at him," Babilonia said. "They wanted me to get a new partner. But my best friend was hurt. This was Tai and Randy, and you stick together."

And the world stuck by them, she said. After they left the ice that night, millions of messages of hope, and thousands of telegrams came pouring in, Babilonia said.

"The first one was from Miss Rosemary Clooney. And we got a phone call from then-President Jimmy Carter. I'm still getting e-mails and letters all these years later," Babilonia said.

The pair turned professional after Gardner recovered, touring with the Ice Capades for three years. They also had other engagements. In 2006, Babilonia partnered with Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner in Fox TV's "Skating with Celebrities."

"I still think he should have won," Babilonia said with a laugh.

In the late 1980s, it was Gardner's turn to stick by Babilonia. Reports of addiction to pills and alcohol, along with rumors of a suicide attempt, swirled through the media.

"I had some problems with substance abuse, and I had to take some time off," Babilonia said.

Gardner was told to get a new partner. He also refused, she said.

"That's a true friend," Babilonia said.

Eventually, aging bodies and other injuries — Gardner suffered a neck injury — forced the pair into permanent retirement in 2008. Babilonia was born with the heart of a competitor. But her body knows it's been a long tough road, she said.

"Things were hurting at (age) 30," Babilonia said with a wry chuckle.

It's been two years since she skated "just for the fun of it," she said. And the black wedge boots she wore Tuesday weren't equipped with blades or a toepick.

"Help me out here," said Babilonia, with a smile and a nod toward center ice.

Two young skaters carefully took the champion by the arms. Babilonia's smile grew as she turned to face the stands, and the flash of the mothers' cameras.

"You're doing good!" one girl said.

Babilonia was uncertain if the young skaters at the Medford rink would recognize her.

"Most of them weren't even born when Randy and I were competing," she said.

She needn't have worried.

Desiree Piter was the first to recognize one of skating's greats had entered the Medford arena. The 18-year-old lives and breathes the sport — reading skating magazines and watching old performances, she said.

"I'm very excited to meet you," said the teen, shaking Babilonia's hand.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The location of the 1980 Olympics was incorrect in the original story. This version has been corrected.

Tai Babilonia greets Southern Oregon Figure Skating Club member Grace Anderson, 6, at The RRRink Monday. Club member Alexa Linden, 13, is on the right. A former national figure skating champion and Olympian, Babilonia has moved to Ashland. - Jim Craven