Before Tonya Harding met Nancy Kerrigan (culminating with a 1994 attack that plays out in the movie I, Tonya), before the French judge colluded with the Russian judge to pave the way to the podium for their countries’ skaters in 2002 (which led to a new judging system), the Olympic figure-skating drama was centered around Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner.
The world champions and five-time national gold medalists were favored to win at the 1980 Olympics, their second Winter Games, until a groin injury took Gardner down.
But it’s how you handle the heartbreaks that matters, and the picture of a fallen Gardner and a stunned Babilonia are burned into the retinas of many skating fans around the world. The pair withdrew from the competition with grace, which perhaps endeared them more to audiences than had they struck gold.
This week, less than a month before the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, Gardner has taken to the stage at Delaware Theatre Company to tell his story in a mostly one-man show, Go Figure: The Randy Gardner Story. It opened Wednesday night and runs through Jan. 28. Babilonia appears as well, along with one of the most famous skaters ever to land an axel, 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill.
The three appeared on the ice earlier this week at the Riverfront Rink in Wilmington, where they chatted and took photos with fans, signed a young girl’s skate, taught mini skating lessons, and promoted the show.
“I went in [to the 1980 Olympics] with an injury, but it was getting better,” Gardner said. “And then I re-injured it while I was there, two days before the short program, and it was a bad one. The team doctor gave me a shot of Xylocaine, and I couldn’t feel my legs.”
No one had told Babilonia. “If he let me know what was going on with his injury, it might upset me. I found out with the people in the arena that night,” when Gardner tried unsuccessfully to warm up before competing.
“Will he skate again? Will we skate again?” wondered Babilonia, who has been Gardner’s on-ice partner for nearly 50 years. “He did heal, and we went on to have a wonderful professional career.”
Off the ice has been a different drama for Gardner, one he rarely talked about until Go Figure, written and directed by Joshua Ravetch, who created Carrie Fisher’s show Wishful Drinking.
In Go Figure, Gardner talks about learning the family secret at age 40 that he was adopted, and then finding his birth mother. He speaks of coming out as gay and being sent to reparative therapy.
“A lot of it, too, is growing up in the ’70s, competing, and being part of the international skating scene during the Cold War,” Gardner said. There was talk of doping. “We didn’t see it, but we talk about the Mutt and Jeff pairs teams, the tall boy and short girl, and how those little girls could keep up with their much bigger partners.”
While many expected Babilonia and Gardner to win in 1980, Hamill did not go into the 1976 Olympics as the obvious front-runner.
“I knew if I did well, I’d have a chance” at Olympic gold, she said, “but it wasn’t expected and I had to skate well. The girls I was competing against had both won the world championship, and I was always in second place.
Hamill, whose 2013 back injury on Dancing With the Stars has seriously curtailed her ability to skate, sets the scene in Go Figure of what Olympic skating was like in the Cold War era. We meet the three Olympians and hear about their families — and about famous skaters from behind the Iron Curtain who defected to the West.
“Dorothy is family,” Babilonia said. “We’re the three musketeers. We toured with Dorothy endlessly in the ’80s. We were on the Olympic team with her in ’76.”
Go Figure premiered in 2015 in the Los Angeles area, and Gardner didn’t perform it again until earlier this month when he did two nights of performances in L.A. prior to the Delaware run. Gardner said New York theater people will be coming to the engagement with an eye on possible dates off-Broadway.
“It’s his story alone, very personal, very revealing on and off the ice,” said Babilonia, whose own story of skating, addiction, and recovery has been frequently reported. Even she learned a lot about Gardner from the show.
“Randy tended to keep everything inside. I just blurt everything out,” she said. “But in the show, it comes out. I learned a lot about my partner and about my friend.”
“We grew a lot together because of different things that have happened,” Gardner said of Babilonia. “In a healthy way, not always easy. And it made us stronger individuals, which made us stronger as a [skating] couple.
“And she’s my favorite person in the world.”
Go Figure: The Randy Gardner Story
Through Jan. 28 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington. Tickets: $75. Information: 302-594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.