Ice Network

Babilonia still not backing down from challenges

Californian talks about influence Gardner, Jenner, Brenner had on her life
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After getting sober and moving back California two years ago, Tai Babilonia says she has gained an "inner confidence" that she didn't have before. -Michael Sparks Keegan

Tai Babilonia was just 8 years old when she began skating with partner Randy Gardner. Now 55, Babilonia never imagined she would still be by Gardner's side.

The two have spent a lifetime working together and are both involved -- together, of course -- in Gardner's theater production about his life in North Hollywood. Babilonia has appeared in the show as a guest artist, as has Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill.

The show runs through this weekend, with its final three shows in California, but talks are in the works about bringing it to other stages around the country.

Babilonia is also pretty busy with other projects. She is working on a memoir, creating a coloring book (facebook.com/taibabiloniaart), co-hosting a TV talk show with Ken Boxer (their upcoming guest is Ted Lange from The Love Boat) and co-headlining (with Gardner) a Skating with the Stars cruise in March. Babilonia and Gardner will co-host the fifth anniversary of An Amazing Evening on Ice July 18 at the Toyota Center.

Babilonia took some time to talk to icenetwork about several topics, including her partnership with Gardner; the state of pairs skating today; the loss of her fiancé, David Brenner; and competing with the former Bruce Jenner on Skating with Celebrities.

Icenetwork: You have spent a lifetime with Randy Gardner. Tell us what it is like to perform with him on a stage instead of wearing skates together.

Babilonia: It is so much fun. The show (Go Figure! The Randy Gardner Story) is really Randy's story -- I just happened to be in his story for more than four decades of it! Still, I have my story, and he has his story. There is a lot of personal stuff in this show...a lot. He opened up. He does for it, and it's so nice to see. He is stepping way out his personal realm. I don't want to give much away, but if you thought you knew everything about Randy, or Tai and Randy, you don't know anything. You know nothing. The show literally takes you on a personal journey from day one, when he was born. He's my best friend, and there's so much I didn't know.

It is a little difficult at times to be in real-people shows and clothes instead of skates. It's out of his comfort zone and out of the box. It's raw, intense. It's funny. It's heartwarming.

Icenetwork: How did Randy approach you about being in this show?

Babilonia: Originally, he wanted Dorothy to introduce the show and then have me host the after-party, but then he asked if I would mind being a part of it, and it just morphed into so much more.

Icenetwork: You and Randy were a huge news story in 1979, when you won the world pairs title leading up to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. Then, of course, Randy's leg injury became the shot heard 'round the Olympic world. (Gardner suffered a pulled groin during training and the team had to withdraw the day of the short program.) Are you still surprised that people talk about it today?

Babilonia: It's surreal. You never know where life is going to take you. It comes up in every interview I ever do. It's just part of our history. It's never going to go away. I don't really think it was so much what happened on that night in Lake Placid; I really believe it's how Randy and I handled it. Fans, friends and family latched onto us and how we handled it. They saw that we were human. It didn't turn out the way the world and the press expected it would turn out.

Icenetwork: Of course, at the time, you would have preferred to have been healthy and won an Olympic gold medal. But looking back now, do you feel, in an odd way, that because of how things turned out that you are more well-known and more famous than you would have been had you won a gold medal?

Babilonia: I absolutely agree. Winning would've been great, but this…there was something more than a gold medal with this. We did Ice Capades for 3 1/2 years, and toured and did all of that. That would've been the same had we won the gold or not. But we grabbed the hearts of people, and they're still holding on. That means so much more to me than a gold medal and a little extra money would have brought. The universe works in mysterious ways.

Looking back on things, I don't even know if we could have topped the performance we did in 1979, when we won the world title. So I am fine with the way things turned out. It happened for a reason.

The funny thing is that yes, it still comes up, all the time. People still ask me today if Randy is OK.

Icenetwork: People still ask about his leg now, in 2015?

Babilonia: Yes! It's so innocent. I will say, 'Yes, he's fine.' I think people think we're still teenagers.

Icenetwork: How hard is that time period for you to look back on? Do you ever watch the video from Lake Placid?

Babilonia: I think it's taken Randy longer. He doesn't watch footage from Lake Placid. After 1980, we were asked to go back to Lake Placid several times, and he couldn't. Much later, I'd say around 2000, we went back to judge something in the arena where the Olympics were. Robin Cousins and the Carruthers (U.S. brother-and-sister pairs team Kitty and Peter) were there, and we were all just sitting around laughing, and then all of a sudden Randy said he had to go up and take a walk. He went to the locker room, where he got his shots. He went alone. He had to do that alone.

I've watched the video, and it is surreal. The fact that we're still skating, and our careers are still going, wow, that blows me away.

Icenetwork: In addition to the show with Randy, you are busy with a talk show in Santa Barbara. I understand Ted Lange of The Love Boat fame will be your next guest. What would be one of the big questions you'd want to ask him?

Babilonia: I'm doing the research on him right now. He's a TV icon! I think one of my questions would be the audition process for that role as Isaac. How many times was it until he got that callback for that part? What did he do to get that part? How did he get that role that changed his life?

Icenetwork: Have you ever met him before?

Babilonia: I've met him a couple of times here in L.A. He's the sweetest guy. He's directing a stage play, and he's a very good director. He can't wait to do the show, and we can't wait to have him.

Icenetwork: You had to be a fan of The Love Boat growing up, right?

Babilonia: Yes! It was huge, and everyone wanted to do that show. That was like how everyone wants to be on Dancing with the Stars now. Ted was a major part of that.

Icenetwork: What else has been keeping you busy?

Babilonia: Randy and I are both writing our memoirs. [Mine is] being pitched to some publishers right now. It's been therapeutic. If you're going to do a book, it has to be all the way. For me, the big thing is that I am 6 1/2 years sober. Since the early 1980s, I dealt with alcoholism and tried a couple of times to get sober, and then stopped. Now, my mind is clear. I co-host a talk show now. I'm having so much fun! I am believing in myself.

Icenetwork: How often to do you think about the struggle to be sober? Some people say it is a daily struggle.

Babilonia: No, not for me. Not at all. I don't think about it now. Every day is a blessing. When I was skating, everything was so well planned. Afterward, it wasn't. I was just tired of alcohol not making me feel good. I looked horrible. I was aging quickly. It's poison. I was tired of feeling sick, and it took its toll. I had to leave and move to Oregon. There were too many distractions here in California, personally and work-wise. I stayed in Oregon for 4 1/2 years, until I could handle it, and then I moved back here. It was probably one of the best decisions I made in my life. I was scared to come back to the craziness here. But there's this strength, this inner confidence I have now. Why not trying everything?

Icenetwork: Do you ever skate these days?

Babilonia: No. I don't have to have my skates on, but who would've thought at 55 I'd be skating at all? I will go and put my skates on for events. Scott Hamilton asked us (her and Gardner) to be at one of his CARES (cancer benefit) shows with Cyndi Lauper and, of course, I put my skates on for that! Cyndi Lauper was singing "True Colors" and it was Scott, Randy, Dorothy and me for the finale. It was magical…one of those moments you want to hold close to your heart. That's family. And my costumes fit, and I can still do an ina bauer and a spread eagle!

Icenetwork: How much skating do you watch these days? What do you make of how far pairs skating has come? Some of the top teams are performing quad throws, and Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim, the U.S. pairs champions this year, executed a quad twist at nationals.

Babilonia: The quad twist -- I can't ever wrap my brain around that. And some of the lifts they're doing! It's almost Cirque du Soleil. But seriously, there are so many different positions on spins and everything that I can't keep up with it all. The new system...I don't hate it or love it. I haven't taken the time to understand it.

There are a handful of skaters who have figured out how to do it all and still sell a program. Jason Brown has figured it out. I wrote to Adam Rippon this year and told him he figured it out. He held us through his whole program. It's about letting your audience in. Don't be selfish. Give it to them, and they will give it back to you. Mr. [John] Nicks, our coach, taught all of us this: Play to the person in the not-most-expensive seat. That is a gift.

Icenetwork: Do you follow much skating today?

Babilonia: Some. I haven't been to nationals in a while. Pairs, in the past, have been so frustrating to me because they wouldn't stay together. I look at dance, and Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White], and I can relate to them. They are just mesmerizing, but they stayed together.

Icenetwork: Any special memories from Ice Capades?

Babilonia: We signed with Ice Capades April 1, 1980 (and we were in Lake Placid in February, and Randy had to heal. There was a question of whether we'd go to worlds, which we didn't.) That was the show. It was probably the best learning experience for me on becoming a pro. There's no book that teaches you how to be a professional, to be great every night, and do two shows every night. I was kind of lost, lonely and really not reaching out to anybody for help. I got through the 3 1/2 years I signed up for. I wouldn't change a thing. After that, I got better as a performer. I was becoming a young adult. Those years were my growing up. It was my high school. Randy took it so naturally, and he sailed through and flourished, and I stumbled. As a competitor, we had to peak a few times a year. Here, we had to perform well every night. People were paying to see us!

Icenetwork: Was that hard for Randy, when he was handling the transition well but you were struggling?

Babilonia: I was trying to keep up with him, and I'm sure it was hard for him because I felt like I was holding him back. We were coming off the Olympics and all of that, and we were the stars of the biggest ice show and we had to be the stars every night, and I wasn't the star every night. I wasn't skating well every night. Later, when I toured with Dorothy in these beautiful shows, I finally got it. It took me going through Ice Capades and the stumbling to get to the next level, to get to the next phase. It was rough, but I had to go through that to be the performer I am today.

Icenetwork: Your partner on Skating with Celebrities was Bruce Jenner, now known to the world as Caitlyn. What have been your impressions as Caitlyn has become a social media sensation?

Babilonia: Just mesmerizing. She is full-on Caitlyn now. What a fascinating life, and I am thrilled for her. All those years of being something that she wasn't -- you have to admire what she's done. I skated with Bruce and have known Bruce since I was 16. I can't wait to meet Caitlyn.

Icenetwork: Were you shocked or surprised by this transformation?

Babilonia: Was I shocked? No (laughing)…I live in Hollywood. There was always chatter, even back in the '80s. I had no inkling when I was skating with him, but just gossip and chatter, and then the chatter got louder, and we have all started hearing it now. Social media is crazy.

Icenetwork: What was Bruce Jenner like as a skater?

Babilonia: He was incredible. I thought he did a phenomenal job. He brought his Olympic-decathlon self to the ice. He was really hard on himself. He was a perfectionist. What would happen is after rehearsals I'd leave and then he'd stay for a couple of hours. That's an Olympic champion. He was that determined. I remember when he got his waltz jump, and then he did two in a row. He was in heaven.

Icenetwork: Finally, it can't be easy to talk about David Brenner, the great comedian and your fiancé who died of cancer in March 2014.

Babilonia: I still can't believe he's gone. We were together for 8 1/2 years. It was probably the most interesting relationship I have ever been in as far as a personal relationship. With David, you were dealing with one of the most brilliant comedians ever. He was in that group with George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

One thing he told me, and I will never forget, is this: 'Don't back down to anyone. If you believe in something, you got to fight for it.' That's why he was at the top for so long. It also was why, well, put it this way: He didn't back down, and I didn't back down.

There was a brilliance to that man. He had that quick, East Coast sense of humor, and I got the jokes. I went to almost every show he did live. I also learned from David about performing. He was a huge fan of Randy and me, and we were big fans of his. The mutual respect was great. He taught me to be strong and believe in myself. That's what I take away from Brenner.

After I got this job (on the talk show), I checked out footage of David on The Tonight Show and on his own show. David was a teacher to me. I have taken those lessons and have learned from them. And I have learned from some of the best.