Would-be Olympic stars Tai and Randy enter new arena

If America's heart ever went out to two young athletes, it did at this year's Winter Olympics. Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner saw their chances for a figure-skating gold medal go poof -- ended when Gardner's aggravated leg injury prevented the 1979 world champions from competing. ABC-TV commentator Dick Button described the pathos; hankies were lifted to teary eyes; and for all anyone knew, the sun had set tragically on two of the most exciting skaters this country ever produced.

But wait a minute. Like real troupers, Tai and Randy have decided their "show" must go on. Tonight they make their professional debut as headliners with the Ice Capades in Los Angeles.

An adoring public will await their arrival at every tour stop, but Los Angeles is a very appropriate place for them to launch careers. Tai is from nearby Mission Hills and Randy from Ladera Heights, so family and friends are sure to dot their opening-night audience. Weeks after the Olympics their future remained in doubt. John Nicks, the pair's coach, wanted them to try to regain their world title in 1981. The prospect didn't appeal to them, and at their mop-up Lake Placid press conference they left reporters with the impression that skating was to go on the back burner for a while. Both indicated a desire to start enjoying all the things they had missed while practicing six days a week, as much as eight hours a day, for the last 11 years.

Randy, 21, had finished his freshman year of college at Southern Cal, and apparently wanted to continue his drama studies. Tai, 19, expressed interest in enrolling at USC to study art. There was even some speculation that they might become Trojan cheerleaders.

About two weeks ago their plans were finally firmed up with the announcement that they had signed a three-year Ice Capades contract. The pact's dollar amount was not disclosed, but it should allow for plenty of room- service breakfasts. The Heartbreak Kids may use some of the money to pay back their parents, who forked over an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 a year in skating expenses. Financial sacrifices had to be made, since neither skater hails from a wealthy family. Randy's father is an accountant, Tai's a detective with the Los Angeles police force.

The decision to turn pro "took a lot of time because of the two families," Tai explained after practicing for an appearance in the "Ice Chips," an annual Boston skating benefit. After listening to lawyers, parents, and their coach, the two ultimately made up their own minds. The chance to skate in the same company with many of their friends no doubt influenced their decision to go with the Capades, which has featured 1976 Olympic gold medalist Dorothy Hamill in recent tours.

"Our life styles are going to change," Tai said in anticipation of replacing early-bird practice sessions with late-night curtain calls. Randy expects a three-month summer vacation to be one of the job's most attractive benefits. "I've never taken more than 10 days off at once since I started skating," he indicated.

Some of their newfound free time will go toward attending movies and concerts , they agreed. And given a degree of flexibility in their working hours should allow them to make commercials, tape specials, and maybe even serve as TV skating analysts.

"We'd like to try commentating," Tai said. "Having a pair might be different."

Though they are not inclined toward marriage, the two get along as well as any married couple could hope to. Gardner once talked of "a secret rapport between us," and anyone who's seen them skate can't help marveling at the mutual confidence and trust they exhibit in executing some rather hair-raising maneuvers.

Their coach once permitted them to be interviewed together, and the pair voluntarily adheres to the practice today. They've become so absorbed in working as a team that the question Randy starts to answer may be finished by Tai.

The forced withdrawal from the Olympics is a disappointment Randy suspects is one the couple will never forget. "The experience brought us even closer together, though," he said of the silver lining in their saddest skating hour.

With the Capades, they will incorporate portions of both their long and short Olympic routines in addition to taking solo turns on the ice.

Since their much-ballyhooed showdown with the Soviet husband-wife team of Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev, the reigning Olympic champions, never came off at Lake Placid, one can only speculate on how Tai and Randy would have done. The first Americans to win the world pairs champions in 29 years, they had captured the title with the Soviet couple on the sidelines expecting their first child.

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