Tai Babilonia, a U.S. Winter Olympic original, credits figure skating trailblazer

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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.

They didn’t.

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.”

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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This is Mabel Fairbanks. She’s pretty damn chic. She is someone I’ve just recently learned about. Mabel wasn’t allowed to join any skating club, never had access to ice time, and wasn’t allowed to enter competitions because she was black. She was persistent AF and found different ways to get on the ice and skate. She later traveled abroad as a show skater and then worked as a skating coach in LA. She was an amazing coach and taught many of the champions and skaters I looked up to when I first started skating. So, today on #olympicparalympicday, I’m going to celebrate Mabel. She didn’t have the chance to qualify or skate in an Olympic Games because of the color of her skin. She paved the way for so many to live out our dreams. Thank you, Mabel ❤️

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Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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