LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — For decades, Tai Babilonia and her partner Randy Gardner were known as ice skating royalty.
Not making headlines in the years since was Tai’s alcoholism. The Olympian spoke with CBS2’s Pat Harvey about her struggle and how she changed her life for the better.
“Ice skating has been my safe place. It’s been my safe place since I was 7 years old,” Babilonia said.
She and her partner, both from California, broke so many records that they soon became known as “Tai-and-Randy.”
“In 1973, we won our first Junior Championship, and it was like the train had left the station,” she said. “It was nonstop, and we worked really hard, and we kept winning.”
They were the five-time U.S. National Champions in pair skating. In 1979, they won the World Championships. No U.S. pair skaters have matched that title since.
They the medal favorites for the 1980 Olympics. But Gardner suffered a major injury and wasn’t able to compete: “In a weird way, that put us on the map. People embraced us. The world embraced us. So, that helped us get through that really difficult night.”
“My problem started when I got on the road. I turned professional, start making the money, the parents are gone, the coach is gone. We weren’t protected anymore. I was 20, but 15 up here,” she said, pointing to her head. “I didn’t know I was allowed to say: ‘No, I’m tired.’ ”
For years, Babilonia had a drinking problem that eventually caught up with her.
“You would go out and skate, have a drink before you went out,” Harvey said to Babilonia.
“Absolutely,” she said. “I thought it was helping me get through that night’s show. I was used to being good three times a year, when you’re a competitor, you have three major competitions. You’re a pro, you’ve got to be good every night. And I didn’t think that out, and I wasn’t in great shape.”
She said 1988 is when she crashed: “It was nonstop work. The money was rolling in. You have a lot of people relying on you. But I get it, I signed up for the job so follow through – I just couldn’t, I couldn’t follow through. And, I tried to take my life.”
Babilonia hit rock bottom.
“Once I was getting my stomach pumped, a little light went on saying, ‘You have a voice and you’re allowed to use it. So, girl, use it,’ ” she said.
It’s an emotional subject for Babilonia, and some things are still too difficult to discuss.
“You just never know where life is going to take you. But just being sober, I’m now six years sober, and that’s probably the biggest thing, the biggest accomplishment: that I pulled it together.”
Babilonia is writing her memoirs. She keeps in touch with Gardner, and they performed together last year.
These days, she’s involved in The Teen Project, a nonprofit organization for homeless girls. The center provides a home and refuge for 100 young women who are recovering from substance abuse, aged out of the foster care system and are homeless.
On a recent day, Babilonia took some girls to the ice rink to skate, some for the first time.
“They are so not alone. I’m so there with them. I understand it. And it’s not easy,” she said. “Anything is possible. You have to want it for yourself and you have to want it from the heart.”
“My gift to them is my safe place, so, hopefully, they can find out that [the rink] can be their safe place, too.”
More: The Teen Project.