Randy Gardner smiles when he lifts weights. It's part of his training. "He knows he is supposed to smile when he puts her down," said Jan Gardner, referring to her son the figure skater and his 115-pound partner Tai Babilonia.
More than any other sport, figure skating demands the appearance of effortlessness. Other athletes grimace; skaters project. The sequins never sweat.
Eleven months have passed since Gardner's torn groin muscle robbed Babilonia and Gardner of their chance at an Olympic gold medal and robbed the sport of its pretense. Their Olympics ended when Gardner fell three times trying a double flip, a jump he had done easily 15,000 to 20,000 times in the last four years.
"We do make it look easy," he said. "Even with the injury, I tried to make it look easy. I couldn't."
And when that which you have worked 11 years to make easy is suddenly impossibly difficult?
"It's hell," he said.
Randy and Tai are professionals now, midway through the first year of their three-year contract with the Ice Capades, signed last April. They are spending part of their Christmas break in Washington, skating in the World Professional Figure Skating Championship tonight at Capital Centre. (About 1,000 tickets remained as of last night).
At first, reporters were told there would be no interviews with the pair. But you can't put a lid on a symbol, and that's what Randy and Tai became in Lake Placid. More than with winners, losers or underdogs, America identifies with those who never get a chance.
"A lot of people think of us as relatives, brothers and sisters," Gardner said. "It's as if they lived through it all with us."
They stand side by side at rinkside. Reporter after reporter approaches with a microphone and the same question; the answers are also the same. Yes, they're happy; no, they don't think about it all the time. The last reporter on line begins, "I know you've heard this a million times but I was 15 feet from you when it happened. . ."
"You were?" they say simultaneously, the incredulity almost as forced as a stage smile on a bad day.
"I don't think about it till people bring it up," Tai said later. "I understand. They want to know."
"It will always be in the back of my mind," Gardner said. "I don't dwell on it. I don't lose sleep over it. It doesn't make me depressed."
"I think he thinks about it," said his mother. "It's something he doesn't talk about yet. Until you talk about it, you're not over it; don't you think?"
Dorothy Hamill, who won fame and fortune in 1976 with the short and sassy look, said she couldn't imagine anything worse happening to a skater. Robin Cousins, the 1980 men's champion, said, "I watched a replay and you could see all the tenseness go out of Tai's body. It's like pulling a string on a sack of potatoes. They all roll out. It takes a long time to pull it all back together."
Gardner's mother, who wanted him to go back to USC, said, "I think they realized how temporal some things are. Randy always read a lot. Now he's an avid reader. I think he knows that you can't depend on your body all the time and might have to use something else."
For a month after the Olympics, they were unsure what to do. They talked about going back to college, about not wanting to be bound to a show. Their coach, John Nicks, who regards Lake Placid as a disappointment, not a tragedy, encouraged them to remain amateurs. He said they would be young enough to compete again in 1984.
What happened? "The opportunity was there," Gardner said. And if there is one thing he learned at Lake Placid, it is to make the most of opportunities. "You never know what's going to happen. You have to go for things," he said.
When the decision was made, they were, as always, in unison. "Thank God," he said.
"At first everything was up in the air," Babilonia said. "What changed my mind? Just having a job. All my friends have one. Now I have one, too."
There were other reasons, of course. Money, for one. Lack of alternatives for another. There isn't much else skaters can do once they've decided to quit amateur competition. "I don't think I ever wanted to quit skating," Gardner said. "I just didn't know how to continue."
As for continuing as amateurs, Babilonia said, "The Russians (Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev) wouldn't be there. There wouldn't be any challenge. We were ready for something new."
More important, perhaps, was Gardner's concern about his leg. "I didn't think I could train again," he said. "I didn't know if it would heal all right. I thought I probably could do professional skating but I didn't know if I could train six hours a day again."
Was that the medical opinion of his doctors? "No," he said, "but I could feel it and I just didn't want it to happen again."
As professionals, they train about an hour a day and skate nine or 10 shows a week. "It still gets tired," he said, "but not real sore. . . I'm very cautious about it. I baby it."
Randy says Tai, who was not told at first of his injury at Lake Placid, has grown up a lot. "I have?" she said, smiling an unrehearsed smile. "Well, so has he."
Nicks said, "They are closer now. Before Randy was the more aggressive in the partnership. Tai was always very nice. But when the problem happened, she got a lot stronger. She was a great comfort to him."
"It's just the two of us now," Gardner said. "I didn't know what to expect, being on the road. It's pretty different not living at home. We're on our own, paying our own bills."
They are independent and in demand.
Hamill, who recently retired after four years in the Ice Capades, learned the hard way what it means to become a commodity. She tried to explain to Gardner what it is like to watch people trade futures in yourself. "We went out to dinner and I tried to explain how difficult it is," she said. "But it's one of those things you have to experience for yourself. I told him the most important thing to remember is only to do things if you want to do them.
"Only in the last year and a half or two years did I learn how to control it. Most of it you have to go through. But Randy is a lot more mature than I was. . . They're a lot more stable than I was."
Gardner's parents also gave him advice. "They said to be careful and to watch everything," he said.
"You are a commodity but you can't think of yourself that way," he added, a bit later. "You try to think of yourself as yourself. You don't let them use you. You can tell those people right away. We do a lot of turning down of things."
Babilonia said: "I can turn it off. Nothing bothers me yet."
And, really, why should it? For Randy and Tai, life is no longer a docu-trauma. The most traumatic thing that has happened to them since they joined the show was the night a lace on Tai's skate came untied and they had to stop skating in the middle of their number.