Ice Network

ITNY honors Babilonia, Gardner at annual gala

Plushenko to make rare U.S. appearance in Chelsea Piers shows
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Never the prototypical pair, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had to develop their artistry to match the athleticism of teams from the Soviet Union and East Germany. -Michon Halio

Ice Theatre of New York founder Moira North has a message for young figure skaters.

"It didn't start with Nathan Chen," said North, who founded ITNY in 1984. "It didn't start with Gracie Gold."

And so for more than three decades, her company's annual benefit gala and performance has celebrated the careers of the sport's greats, from Dick Button and Tenley Albright to Sasha Cohen and Evan Lysacek, last year's honorees.

On Monday, 1979 world champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner -- the last U.S. pair to top the world podium -- take their turn in the ITNY spotlight, capping the three-show ITNY home season at New York's Chelsea Piers. The honor is just in time to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of their partnership.

"I've been kind of waiting for this," Gardner joked. "I said to Moira, 'It's about damned time.'"

"I was there (in 2006) when our pair idols, JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, were honored by ITNY when they celebrated their 50th, and now it's our turn," Babilonia said. "It really is an honor, and it caught us off guard."

Babilonia and Gardner, winners of five U.S. titles (1976-80), teamed up in 1969 when Mabel Fairbanks -- the African-American skating teacher Babilonia calls "a barrier breaker and legend" -- paired them for a show at Culver City Ice Arena, a now closed Los Angeles-area rink.

"Randy was playing Dr. Doolittle and needed a little partner," Babilonia said. "[Mabel] told me, 'Hold his hand and skate around the rink.' I was 8, he was 10."

"We had an amazing amateur career and a phenomenal pro career, and pretty much did everything we could do," she added. "But it's that we've kept our friendship going five decades that I cherish."

Babilonia and Gardner, who trained under John Nicks starting in 1972, competed against athletic Russian and East German pairs throughout their career. They pitted artistry and well-matched lines against increasingly difficult lifts and triple (or quad) twists executed by teams like Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev, and Marina Cherkasova and Sergei Shakrai of the Soviet Union, and Sabine Baes and Tassilo Thierbach of East Germany.

"We didn't do triple twist; we could do triple throws, but we had a harder time," Gardner said. "We had to excel in other areas: our unison, side-by-side spins, pull Arabians. I always thought it was flattering when Eastern European teams tried to do [pull Arabians] as well. We knew we were doing something right."

"I'm 5 feet, 4 ½ inches, and I don't weight 95 pounds; Randy was not 6 feet tall," Babilonia said. "We were limited. We could not get a triple twist, it wasn't going to happen, so [Mr. Nicks] knew what to emphasize. The ballet lifts, the artistry set us apart from the Russians and East Germans. It was just a different look."

There was crushing disappointment at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, when the pair withdrew before the short program because of Gardner's torn groin muscle. The saga played out live on ABC, with sensitive commentary from Jim McKay and Dick Button.

"It's a blur, but I guess we handled ourselves in interviews the best we could," Babilonia said. "We didn't blame anyone. It just wasn't in the cards for us. I think we gained a lot of fans from that, and the great thing is they stuck with us up until now."

Proud of their world title, Babilonia and Gardner are perplexed that another U.S. pair has not been able to replicate that feat. Babilonia attributes the drought, in part, to partner switching.

"I sort of lost interest after Keaunu [McLaughlin] and Rockne [Brubaker]," she said. "I thought, 'This is a team that is going the distance, so talented and beautiful looking.' Then something happened, and he was on to the next partner, and then another partner. ... We made a commitment to all the ups and downs. Puberty hit me hard in 1975; we made the world team, but it was our worst year. Then I settled down and it was fine, and we had a great rest of a career."

Gardner thinks a more centralized training approach might benefit U.S. pairs.

"Maybe it's sharing ideas. Working with international coaches might be a good idea, or establishing some sort of national pair center," Gardner said. "It's almost like [coaches] don't want to share, and in the end, we're sort of isolating these teams so as not to expose them to the next step."

After their show career slowed, Gardner worked as a choreographer on countless productions, including Champions on Ice and Elvis Stojko and Nancy Kerrigan's tours. These days, he coaches in Los Angeles.

"I've been so lucky and so thankful to stay in the business I love, be creative and work with people I like, and make a living at it," he said. "It's been a nice ride."

After some rocky years dealing with addiction, Babilonia moved to Ashland, Oregon, to "get sober." She returned to Los Angeles four years ago and has since worked on projects including a television talk show and a Florida stage production of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, co-starring Leave it to Beaver's Tony Dow.

"I've had an interesting personal life, lots of ups and downs and dealing with alcoholism," said Babilonia, who does motivational speaking at Los Angeles-area schools. "On November 4th, I celebrate nine years of sobriety. I've made huge mistakes. I've never blamed anyone; I try to learn from them and keep improving."

Many longtime acquaintances and mentors of Babilonia and Gardner, including "Mr. Debonair" Richard Dwyer and 1956 Olympic champion Tenley Albright, will be on hand for their special evening. One, John Nicks, will not attend -- at age 88, he prefers to stick close to his home and boat -- but he will pay tribute via an ITNY-produced video.

"The video takes them from their win at worlds to the terrible reality of Lake Placid, into their ice show careers, where they further developed their performance skills," North said. "If I were a young skater watching this video -- like, hopefully, a Gracie Gold -- I would be heartened that big disappointments aren't the end, that there is perseverance, resurgence and adaptability."

Plushenko plans rare U.S. appearance

ITNY will also honor company alumni Ari Zakarian, a former acrobatic show skater (with partner Akop Manoukian) and current sports agent and event producer. On Saturday and Monday, Zakarian's most revered client, 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, will take the ice and perform two numbers in the Chelsea Piers shows.

Zakarian, a native Armenian, performed with ITNY in the early to mid-1990s. He stayed in touch with ITNY over the years, contributing advice, money and professional contacts.

"He's an entrepreneur, one of those people out there with the same passion for skating as Tai and Randy, in his own way," North said. "He is out there in the world trying to make things happen, not just for himself but for skating."