A REUNION STORY

HELENE ELLIOTT

Babilonia and Gardner’s bond survives off ice

Legendary ice-skating team shares affinity that incorporates their changing identities. Their status as the last U.S. pair to win world title, in 1979, wasn’t threatened at this week’s competition in Sweden.

Helene Elliott

March 20, 2008

Since 8-year-old Tai Babilonia reluctantly took the hand of 10-year-old Randy Gardner for the first time 40 years ago in Culver City, they have been defined by their figure-skating partnership.

They were Taiandrandy the five-time U.S. pair champions, capable of great athleticism and grace.

Taiandrandy the 1979 world champions, a feat no U.S. duo has matched and none came near at the World Championships this week in Sweden.

Most memorably they were Taiandrandy the tragic victims of misfortune, favored to win gold at the 1980 Olympics but forced to withdraw when Gardner was hobbled by a groin injury.

Their disappointment became part of their shared history as they went on to perform in shows, collaborate on a book and support each other through crises and everyday life.

Time and a serious neck problem that drove Gardner to undergo surgery in September have led them to acknowledge that their skating days are over. Their bond, however, has grown to incorporate their changing identities.

“We’re branching out in all these different directions,” Babilonia said, “but people want us to be Tai and Randy, and we always will be. Just not on the ice.”

Babilonia, long recovered from substance abuse problems that fueled her 1988 suicide attempt, is the mother of a 13-year-old son, fiancée of comedian David Brenner, a Special Olympics volunteer and designer of a line of skaters’ clothing.

Gardner, who turned 50 in December, is a choreographer and coach and, in a larger sense, is still discovering who he is.

Gardner learned by chance 10 years ago that he had been adopted, sending him on a five-year search for his birth mother. He found her and learned she had conceived him when she was 17 and was raped by a family friend.

While he assimilated that — and learned he had a half-brother and half-sister — he told Scene magazine two years ago that he is gay, a peek into a part of his life he had always kept private.

Now, he’s working on a book about his life and evolution of his new, separate self.

He always wondered if he had been adopted because he didn’t resemble anyone else in the family, but the parents who raised him — now deceased — never discussed it.

“I found my birth certificate had been altered and the search agency I was working with told me that’s usually the sign of an adoption,” he said.

His search of court records uncovered a name, Dottie Baca, and an address in Idaho. He sent a letter to her home and it arrived while she was at her job as a grocery checker; her husband called her at work to tell her about the mysterious missive.

She told him to open it because they had no secrets. Years before, she had told him about the baby and the pregnancy that was deemed so shameful in that era that her mother ignored it and her father stopped speaking to her.

“He opened it up and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s your son,’ ” she said.

Gardner told her he wanted no money, just information about his family.

“He sent two pictures of himself, one at 7 or 8 and another 13 or 14, but he said nothing about skating,” she said. “I sat down that night and wrote a letter and sent a picture of us and he called me.

“Then he wrote a letter and told me he’s a performing athlete, and I didn’t know what that was. One day I woke up, and you know those moments when you’re not quite awake? It just came to me and I said, ‘Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, that’s who he is.’ “

She had seen the duo skate but had no idea he was the son she had given up before she could hold him or name him. They met in San Jose while he was on a business trip.

“He looks a lot like me around the eyes,” she said.

“I’m extremely glad to be back in his life and I’m extremely happy for all that he achieved. I never could have given him that.”

Gardner is still becoming accustomed to all of this.

“It’s been emotional,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to start a relationship with my birth mom.”

They keep in touch sporadically, and Baca said Gardner and his partner, Jay, plan to visit her next month. Besides a 47-year-old son and 45-year-old daughter, she and her husband have two children they adopted after fostering them.

“The funny thing is people say he looks just like my husband,” she said.

“I’m just glad he’s doing as well as he is. I did a lot of praying for him for a long, long time.”

Babilonia and Gardner were haunted for years by their missed Olympic chance, but they got some closure when they performed at Lake Placid during the 25th reunion of the 1980 U.S. team.

They had not skated at that rink since the night they pulled out of the Games and were loathe to awaken old sorrows. Through some gift, their old unison and artistry were theirs again, and Brenner, who knows something about entertaining people, was astounded by the ovation they got.

“I saw the crowd absolutely leap to their feet in unison as if they’d gotten an electric shock,” he said. “I’d never seen a crowd reaction like that.

“And the amazing thing was most of those people were crying. I’m just glad I was there.”

Babilonia maintained her poise until Gardner, zipping up her next costume, told her the performance had allowed him to feel for the first time that he belonged to the U.S. team.

“That did it for me,” she said. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

It was the last time they skated as a pair. It may be the last time ever. They’re fine with that.

“It was the perfect place,” Babilonia said, “to say thank you and good night.”

But not goodbye.

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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