A month before the Olympics, Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner received good-luck charms in the mail from Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac. The telegram said, "Keep dreaming and believing."
She put hers on. It was a gold crescent moon on a gold chain. she wore it every day -- until the night that the pair skaters were getting ready to glide out onto the ice at Lake Placid last February during the 1980 Winter Olympics, the games for which they had spent 11 years training. Then her coach, concerned that the chain would catch in her costume, asked her to take it off. After a moment of hesitation, she did.
And the rest is, well, history. Randy skated out on the ice, numbed with medication for a painful groin-muscle injury, tried a warm-up double flip and fell. He tried again, another fall, and still another fall. He tried to lift her; he couldn't; they left the ice; she dashed from the rink in tears. Former skating champion Dick Button, reporting for ABC, was standing there stunned at his microphone, with everyone in the world watching it on TV . . .
"Yeah," Babilonia says, remembering, grinning, lying back on a bed in a Holiday Inn in College Park, fingering the gold moon. Around her are the portable accouterments of home: a framed color photo of the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team, a tape recorder for music, a thick stubbly candle burning on the dresser, stuffed toy dogs. Her voice, at 20, is girlish, as she recalls how the next morning, after the fall, after they withdrew from competition, she put the chain back on. She hasn't removed it since. "I think about it sometimes. I know it's just a superstition, but I have a thing about good-luck charms."
She also keeps a rosary on her dressing-room table. And pop singer Andy Gibb gave her a hollow silver pig that she keeps with her in a little cloth pouch. "He said it's for good luck." They met on the Bob Hope special.
But the Olympic fall was its own good luck charm: Now she and Gardner are skating for six-figure salaries through the Ice Capades, the tragic Romeo and Juliet of the ice, the star-crossed skaters. "They stole your hearts at Lake Placid . . ." booms the TV commercial advertising the Ice Capades, which opened last night at the Capital Centre. They didn't even skate at Lake Placid.
"There was no anger on my part," she says now. "But we'd just never had any injuries. We just thought, 'Why now? Why at this time?' It's still in the back of my mind. We hardly talked about it after Lake Placid. But everyone keeps bringing it up."
She has probably answered the questions as many times as she has arched her strong and supple back into a "death spiral," her body horizontal to the ground, head barely grazing the ice, Gardner clutching her hand as he whirls her across the ice. That, she estimates, she did 500 times in a year before they got it right, before they got it so right that even a color photo of it transmits the tremendous power. She has one of those photos framed and sitting on the dresser of her hotel room.
It all comes with the territory: the Ice Capades and the celebrity that have blossomed around the pair, pink-cheeked youth in the adult world of achievement (five time national champions, 1979 world champions).
"It's a strange feeling when people come up to you in the middle of shopping malls, and they recognize you," she says. "I guess I'm just not used to it. In restaurants, you look up out of the corner of your eye and someone's staring at you. Makes it kind of hard to eat." She scrunches up her nose in a grin. "I just ignore it. I do it, too. When I see a celebrity I stare."
Her beauty is exotic, part of her celebrity image -- the almond eyes, the bronze skin, the skater's body, well-rounded a muscled, 5-feet-5, 122 pounds. (When you work for the Ice Capades, you have to weigh in every week.)
Little mention is made of the fact that she is black. Her father is Filipino, her mother black. Yet Ice Capades skater Richard Ewell, a friend of hers, is touted in the Ice Capades program as "the first black skater ever to compete internationally or to hold two national titles."
"I think of myself as different," she said. "Everyone wonders what I am. I think it's neat that I'm so many different things. People usually try to guess. 'Are you Italian?' No. 'Are you Spanish?' No." She singsonged the guessing.
"I tell them both of what I am. I tell them my father's Filipino and my mother's black."
Celebrity means money, too. "I don't feel rich," she says. "I don't buy a lot of stuff. I'm pretty good at saving money." On the floor of the room are two pairs of cowboy boots, one white, one purple. In the closet is a coyote jacket that friends gave her. In her ears -- three diamond studs, gifts from her parents. Also new: an accountant, a lawyer and a public-relations firm. And a different regimen. No more getting up at 6 a.m., skating for six hours, then a mile around the track, then a little school, a little ballet and a little jazz.
Now she sleeps in until 9 a.m., putters around her hotel room, reading maybe (currently, Lauren Bacall's "By Myself'; lots of books about Judy Garland), writing letters to friends, sometimes shopping, sometimes watching "General Hospital." "All the girls in the line watch it," she says. "So I've been turning it on."
She rehearses for an hour before each show with Gardner, comes back to the hotel room after the show, watches Johnny Carson or Tom Snyder on television before turning in. "At the beginning I had to pace myself," she says. "It was really tiring. I was used to skating in the mornings."
On Saturdays they do three shows. "Your feet hurt after the second show, because we have to wear fishnet stockings," she says. "Your feet swell." Not that she minds the stockings. "I think it just looks better -- more natural."
Not much time for personal life: "I'm not going out with anyone steady right now," she says. "My career comes first. You can have all that other stuff later."
Last summer she dated an actor named Christopher Knight (once one of the boys on "The Brady Bunch"). She met him at a party that Olympic silver medalist Linda Fratianne threw in Los Angeles after the Olympics. "It was the first time I dated, really," she says, smiling. "It was great, really great."
She doesn't see him much -- they write or talk on the phone sometime. "Well, it's hard with the traveling."
Mainly she skates and writes to her friends. Gardner is her best friend. "We can talk about anything," she says. "Not that he cares who I date or anything."
She figures she'll just keep skating, maybe go to college eventually. "We have so much to learn," she said. "We're not considered athletes. We're in the entertainment business now."