When pairs’ figure skater Tai Babilonia debuted at the Olympics in 1976, the fact that her presence in Innsbruck, Austria, was historic did not enter her 16-year-old mind.
None of the previous 500-plus U.S. Winter Olympians dating to 1924 were Black. Babilonia is multiracial. Her mom is Black. Her dad was half Filipino and half Hopi.
“The whole family, we got the stares,” said Babilonia, noting people didn’t believe she was related to her older brother, who was a few shades darker. “At some point you kind of have to laugh it off.”
Babilonia, introduced to skating and given her first name by her godfather, Mako Nakashima, never felt uncomfortable in the predominantly white sport. Part of the reason: Mabel Fairbanks, her childhood skating teacher in Culver City, Calif.
Fairbanks was a trailblazer. In the 1930s, she wasn’t allowed to join a figure skating club because she was Black, and thus barred from competition. Yet Fairbanks still ended up in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, having skated in international shows and coached future Olympic and world champions.
“She always told me and her other students of color, when you get out there to perform and compete, it doesn’t matter what color you are, you still have to go out and give it your best,” Babilonia said in a recent interview. “Pearls of wisdom I use to this day.”
Fairbanks first matched Babilonia, then 8 years old, and Randy Gardner, then 10, as a pairs’ team for a small skating show at their club. Babilonia had never held a boy’s hand. She was bribed with stickers and Barbie dolls. She and Gardner skated together over six different decades.
In Culver City, she felt like part of a family. Fairbanks’ group was diverse.
“Black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed,” Babilonia said. “It wasn’t until we would go to competitions, like the nationals, where it’s like, oh, OK, it’s predominantly white. But at 13 years old, it’s like, who cares? I’m 13.”
Babilonia was 13 when she and Gardner won the U.S. junior pairs’ title. They later took five straight senior national titles and the 1979 World title, sandwiched between two Olympic appearances. No U.S. pair has won a world title since.
When Babilonia and Gardner competed at their first Olympics in 1976, the bulk of the figure skating attention went to Dorothy Hamill. When journalists did interview Babilonia, she told them her exact background.
“They turn around and give me a label: exotic,” she said. “I would see exotic a lot. Well I didn’t say exotic. I said Black, Filipino, Hopi Indian.”
What was said, what was written, it didn’t matter during her seven competitive seasons before turning professional.
“That’s out of my hands,” she said. “I’ve got to go out and do the job. Randy and I had a job to do, and we did it from 1973 to 1980.”
Babilonia and Gardner, after surprising themselves by placing fifth in 1976, entered the 1980 Lake Placid Games as reigning world champions.
Dominant Russians Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev didn’t compete at the 1979 Worlds due to Rodnina’s pregnancy, but perhaps Babilonia and Gardner could challenge the Soviet reign (four straight golds dating to 1964) on home ice.
Gardner pulled a groin muscle training in Santa Monica 10 days before leaving for Lake Placid. He then aggravated it in practice the night after the Opening Ceremony. They tried a last resort minutes before the short program: a pain-killing shot of xylocaine. It left Gardner so numb that he couldn’t control his leg muscles and fell multiple times in warm-up.
They withdrew. Their Olympic careers were over.
“That Olympic incident had a very lasting impression on her and the what-if,” Gardner said. “She was always so kind and thoughtful about me. She would always say, ‘He had an injury. What could anybody do about it?’ I think that was so kind of her. She could have ditched me.”
As a touring professional in the 1980s, Babilonia found she was an inspiration to young girls. Fan mail poured in.
“I know some people have named their kids after her,” Gardner said.
Babilonia also plunged into alcoholism in her 20s. She tried to commit suicide on Sept. 14, 1988.
“I bought some sleeping pills and a bottle of booze,” she wrote in a 1989 People magazine cover story. “I cleaned my house and wrote a will leaving my cats to my parents, my car to my brother and my antique dolls to the L.A. Children’s Museum. I was calm and I was serious.”
She woke up the next morning. She started getting help.
Babilonia and Gardner remained skating partners — “soulmate,” Babilonia calls Gardner now. Gardner remembered appearing on the cover of Jet magazine with Babilonia, but that she didn’t care for the attention and didn’t want to identify as one race.
“I just don’t think Tai got the recognition she deserved, if she wanted it,” as a pioneer, he said. “I don’t really think she really cared that much about it, though, to be honest.”
Babilonia was asked if she considered herself a pioneer. She paused, then answered.
“In a multiracial way, yes,” she said. “I think I am the first multiracial Olympic figure skater with the Black, Filipino, Hopi Indian makeup. Is that a pioneer? I don’t know.”
She was followed by Black Winter Olympians in bobsled, luge, speed skating, hockey and, most notably in figure skating, 1988 bronze medalist Debi Thomas.
Babilonia points to her predecessors whom she calls legends, like Fairbanks and another Fairbanks student — Atoy Wilson, the first Black skater to win a U.S. title, at the novice level in 1966.
Babilonia is active with Diversify Ice, a non-profit providing opportunities for minorities in figure skating. She wants to see more Black skaters at the U.S. Championships and more people of color in leadership roles within the sport.
She often thinks about Fairbanks, who died in 2001. Others are learning about Fairbanks now, including Adam Rippon, who recently called her “pretty damn chic.”
“She is the sole person responsible for creating Tai and Randy,” Babilonia said. “Every night before I go to bed, I thank her.”
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