Eleven years worth of Olympic dreams went down in a death spiral tonight for America's Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia, the reigning world champion figure-skating pair.

The couple had to drop out of the Olympics tonight when Gardner was unable to perform in the evening's short program due to a severely pulled groin muscle.

The Olympic Field House was stunned when Gardner, after taking a few perfunctory spins to warm up, turned to his coach, John Nicks, and a decision was made for the pair to withdraw in order to avoid possible serious injury.

Babilonia dashed out of the auditorium in tears with Nick's arm around her shoulder. Gardner left looking like a pale zombie, his face blank and expressionless.

Those who arrived at the auditorium early to watch warmups knew that an athletic disaster was in the making.

Gardner has had groin problems of varying severity for almost two months. This week they were aggravated in practice, but Nicks and Gardner didn't think the injury was serious enough to hinder his performance.

In tonight's warmups, Gardner fell three times, unable to complete any move that required a squatting spin. Twice, he tried to lift Babilonia over his head in dangerous life spins and both times had to abort the move.

After they left the ice, through a tunnel, Babilonia burst into tears while Gardner went into a back room, presumably for further treatment.

Ten minutes later, just moments before their scheduled program, Babilonia and Gardner, who have practiced together for 11 years since they were 8 and 10 years old, respectively, were looking stunned, but composed.

Babilonia, her tears dried and her makeup back in place, was doing squats. Gardner stared into space.

"Whatever the Big One is, they just dropped it on Randy," said a man in the tunnel. "The poor guy doesn't feel anything."

"They're going to go on. Everything's all right," said Paul George, U.S. men's team manager.

But just minutes later, Gardner was no better.

"They had no option," said Nicks, after seeing Gardner's last feeble attempts to get loose just seconds before their scheduled routine. "Randy really wanted to go on. But I had to withdraw them."

"We were concerned about Randy's ability to life Tai safely," said George.

Babilonia left the field house by a side door and was driven away.

"Life does not end with any competition," said her father, Constancio Babilonia, "even the Olympics."

"Randy was in pain on any individual jumps or on any sit-spin," said Nicks. "IT WASN'T EVEN A CLOSE DECISION TO MAKE. randy was falling in warmups on moves that I haven't seen him miss once in the last four years.

"There are six mandatory moves in the short program and he just couldn't have done them. More important, it would have been dangerous for both of them if they had even tried.

"They're young. They're perfectly able to compete for another four years, if they wish. I don't know if that is what they will choose.They may want to go back to college and live more normal lives," said Nicks.

"This is not the time to talk about that. For now, it is just very sad.

"Tai kept repeating that it was her fault and that she had let everyone down. I kept explaining to her that it had nothing to do with her, but she couldn't seem to understand.

"Randy just seemed resigned and stunned. He's been fighting it for days and in the end, he just came to know that he couldn't do it, even though he wanted to try right up until I pulled them out."

Babilonia and Gardner were favored here for an Olympic gold that might have been worth a million dollars to them if they had been able to translate it into an ice show contract.

This was a simple, sad story of two glamorous youngsters who have spent their athletic lives -- and that is basically their whole life -- waiting for one competition: these Olympics.

The beautiful children from Los Angeles -- the girl with the almond eyes and the boy with the black hair -- had waited 11 years for these days in Lake Placid.

Now, if they choose, they get to wait four more years.

And take their chances again.