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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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Trayvon Bromell emerged from destruction a new sprinter, new man

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For Trayvon Bromell, July 4 was an independence day. His first race as a rebuilt sprinter, more than four years after he first felt discomfort in his left heel.

It was also much more than that. Bromell, whose training base is Jacksonville, Fla., arrived in Montverde, off Lake Apopka just west of Orlando, for a meet called the Showdown in O-Town.

Exactly four years earlier, Bromell celebrated qualifying for his first Olympics at age 20.

Three years after that, 364 days before the Showdown, Bromell left that Montverde track and had his coach believing he might quit sprinting.

Finally, 10 days before last month’s comeback meet, Bromell learned that the woman who taught him to be a sprinter, from age 4 through high school, had died.

That coach, Garlynn Boyd, was supposed to be in Montverde on July 4 to watch Bromell.

The time came for heat five of the 100m. Bromell leaned into the starting blocks of lane two on a wet track. He felt the weight of the last few years. He sensed his arms shaking.

After at least one false start, Bromell ran. He won the heat in 10.04 seconds.

Bromell’s personal best is 9.84, but that he approached the 10-second barrier, which separates fast sprinters from medal-contending ones, after what he endured the last four years was very promising.

Bromell found his mom, Shri Sanders. She raised him, his two brothers and his sister, by herself in St. Petersburg. She prayed over him after the victory.

He raced again three weeks later. He ran 9.90 seconds, which would have earned bronze at the most recent Olympics and world championships.

Bromell’s speed was back, but in interviews he’s reflected more on a recent personal transformation. Aside from sprinting, Bromell told  Flotrack that he crawled out of “the destruction of my past,” “the downfall of my career” and “a real dark alleyway” in this Olympic cycle.

Bromell declined to discuss specifics last week.

“I’ve got something coming out in the near future that’s going to speak and answer all the questions that people want to know,” he said, noting that it’s mostly related to mental health.

By 2013, the track world began to learn about Bromell, a 5-foot-8 high schooler who sprinted in shorts, not tights, and a headband.

He broke his left knee in eighth grade doing backflips, broke his right knee and forearm in ninth grade playing basketball and in 10th grade cracked a hip during a race.

Through all of that, he was coached by Boyd of the Lightning Bolt Track Club. Boyd began teaching Bromell how to be a sprinter before he started elementary school.

“We come from a bad area where poverty is big, and we didn’t really have a lot,” Bromell said of his family. “[My mom] worked all the time to make sure I was good, to make sure we had somewhere to live. When I went to practice, coach G was like another mom, to everyone, to every kid in the city who came in connection with us. She loved us. With my injuries in high school, my mom and coach G were the only people who believed I was special, even in times when I didn’t feel I was special.”

She fought diabetes for years — both of her legs were amputated — but Bromell didn’t know for sure her cause of death. St. Petersburg Times obituary reported she contracted the coronavirus before she died at age 54.

“I don’t even have the words to explain this pain I’m feeling,” was posted on Bromell’s Instagram the day of her death. “God knows that with everything in me, the world will know the lives you help change!”

In 12th grade, he became the first U.S. high schooler to break 10 seconds over 100m (albeit with too much wind for record purposes). Matthew Boling later broke Bromell’s record by .02.

Bromell, also a slot receiver at Gibbs High, passed on football interest from schools including West Virginia. He took a track scholarship at Baylor, known for producing Olympic 400m champions Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner.

“I don’t really like to put a kid in a box and say we expect this or that,” legendary Baylor coach Clyde Hart said in 2014. “I think he’s going to get better. He’s going to get a lot stronger. In my opinion, most sprinters don’t get their prime until 24, 25 years old. He’s only 18.”

As a freshman, Bromell won the NCAA 100m title in 9.97 seconds, becoming the first 18-year-old to break 10 seconds with legal wind (and still the only one to do so). As a sophomore, Bromell clocked 9.84, a time faster than anything Carl Lewis ever recorded.

Later that summer, Bromell shared 100m bronze with Canadian Andre De Grasse at the world championships, behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin, becoming the second-youngest medalist in that event’s history. He turned professional, signing a contract with New Balance, which he said is still in place today.

In March 2016, Bromell won the world indoor 60m title (Bolt, Gatlin and De Grasse were absent). His coach at Baylor, Mike Ford, still calls it the best Bromell race he’s seen in person. The Olympics were five months away.

In Bromell’s first top-level meet of the spring, he led a 200m in Rome coming off the turn. Then he slowed down considerably and finished seventh.

Three days later, he felt left heel pain while warming up at a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain. He withdrew and flew back to Texas.

An X-ray revealed a bone spur growing near his Achilles. The Olympic Trials were in four weeks. They had to modify training and hope to minimize the pain, putting off potential surgery until after Rio.

Bromell made the Olympic team, placing second at Trials to Gatlin in 9.84 seconds. He trained for Rio in a pool and on an anti-gravity treadmill. When he sprinted, it was often on grass and not in spikes.

Ford felt it was a victory that Bromell even qualified for the Olympic final, where he finished last in 10.06 seconds.

“I wasn’t going to run,” Bromell said. “I was telling myself that I was just in too much pain.”

Five nights later, Bromell lined up against Bolt for the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay. He felt no pain.

As Tyson Gay neared with the baton, a dashing Bromell turned his head back for a moment to ensure the handoff. Bolt, in the adjacent lane, opened a slight lead and extended it down the straightaway.

Bromell, in dipping to try to edge Japan’s Asuka Cambridge for silver, stumbled and tumbled on the blue track. As Bolt made the final decelerating pose of his Olympic career, Bromell’s loose orange baton flew in the background.

As Bromell tried to catch himself hitting the ground, the heel pain returned. He couldn’t walk off the track. Officials brought out a wheelchair. Bromell departed believing his anchor secured the bronze medal.

Minutes later, he left a medical room on crutches and was told the team was disqualified. Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin exchanged the baton out of the zone.

“I gave everything that I could, almost just throwing myself just to try to get the medal, then it was just like, dang, we got DQed,” Bromell said. “I just couldn’t win in the situation. I got hurt going into the Olympics, then I couldn’t really perform how I wanted to in the 100m and then this. I’m taking an L after L after L right now.”

He underwent the post-Olympic surgery. Bromell was in a boot for two months. He said he did no rehab exercises for six months, per doctor’s instructions. Scar tissue built up. He went 10 months between races and, in his return, was eliminated in the first round at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. Bromell didn’t feel right and had the heel re-examined.

I don’t see how you can run 10.2, a new doctor told him. Your tendon should have torn off the bone.

Bromell underwent another surgery and started over again. This time, he went two years between races. On July 6, 2019, Bromell took a misstep about 70 meters into a 100m heat in Montverde and eased up, clocking 10.54 seconds.

Ford feared it was the Achilles, but Bromell taped up the foot and lined up for his final. Halfway through that race, he blew an adductor muscle in his upper leg. Bromell returned to his hotel and spoke with Ford.

“I thought he may quit,” said Ford, who had coached Bromell for nearly four years.

Bromell stayed in Florida to consider his next move. Ford flew back to Texas. They decided a change was best. Bromell spoke with Reider, who developed a knack for helping athletes return from leg injuries.

Christian Taylor, the 2012 Olympic triple jump champion, switched takeoff legs after knee pain and repeated as gold medalist in Rio. De Grasse joined Reider’s group in November 2018 after a pair of season-ending right hamstring injuries. In 2019, the Canadian earned 100m bronze and 200m silver at the world championships.

“[Bromell’s] expectations were just to be like he was before, at some point,” Reider said. “The expectations for me were just to get him to a point where we could see if we could actually train. When we got in, there were some basic functions he couldn’t do.”

Bromell did what Reider called rudimentary strength and conditioning exercises those first months. He began sprinting in earnest in March.

That Independence Day race — the 10.04 — was his first in four years without pain, Reider said. Neither Ford nor Reider was surprised by that time or the 9.90 on July 24.

“We made some steps to be able to be an athlete and not a rehab project,” Reider said. “I think he can run faster than he’s ever run.”

Bromell lives by himself in Jacksonville. He has other passions, notably photography.

He sees a counselor regularly after a difficult stretch of years. He emerged from what he called “situations I probably shouldn’t have been in.” He plans to reveal specifics later.

“I stopped doing a lot of things in my life that was destroying me,” he said. “I stopped having pain and hurt in my heart and having it consume me. … I started reading my Bible more. I started reading books more. A lot of things that helped me evolve as a human. To have more peace, live properly and not destroy myself from within.”

Bromell doesn’t know where his 2015 or 2016 World Championships medals are. He doesn’t assign as much value to them as he does three-page essays that he received from college fund applicants in 2018. He promised $10,000 each to five students, choosing the recipients based on their submitted life stories.

“There’s people out here that were literally writing in their essays, Tray, your fighting, your drive to not give up helped me to not commit suicide tomorrow,” Bromell said. “Imagine reading something like that. Who would’ve thought this little kid from south side St. Pete could have an impact just by running 100 meters. That’s my gold medal.”

MORE: Usain Bolt would unretire if one man called

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Brian Orser reveals Hanyu’s, Medvedeva’s, and Brown’s Grand Prix plans

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Over the past decade, the Toronto club where Brian Orser coached South Korea’s Yuna Kim to the 2010 Olympic title has become such an attraction for top figure skaters from around the globe that it could add a word to a name that already is a mouthful.

You could call it the Toronto International Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

But its reach now is limited by the deadly virus pandemic that has effectively frozen out the elite athletes from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Poland who train at the Cricket Club.

That situation won’t change quickly, even with the International Skating Union having announced Monday its plans to proceed with a live format for the international Grand Prix Series. This fall, it will become a series of six essentially domestic competitions scheduled to begin with Skate America Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

If they take place.

“As soon as the skaters can come back, it will be full steam ahead… to where, we don’t know,” Orser said via telephone Wednesday.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu remains in Japan. Two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva is in Russia, four-time national champion Cha Jun-Hwan in South Korea, and two-time national champion Yekaterina Kurakova in Poland.

“We would like for them all to come back, but with the Canadian travel restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21, we can’t guarantee approval to get them in, and they would have a 14-day quarantine here if they do get in,” Tracy Wilson, who coaches with Orser, said via telephone Wednesday. “Right now, they are all training at home, and that’s OK.

“The situation is different for each one. The Japanese federation may need Yuzu to do the Grand Prix in Japan, and at this point he would face quarantine entering Canada and returning to Japan.

“For Yevgenia, as soon as she does the Russian test skates (scheduled for early September), we will re-evaluate her situation.”

Orser said he has been doing three video coaching sessions a week with Medvedeva, with whom he is in his third season as coach. Medvedeva, who left Russia for Canada after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics, also is currently getting help from coach Elena Buyanova at the CSKA rink in Moscow.

“She (Medvedeva) looks way ahead of where she was at this point last year,” Orser said.

MORE: Looking back at Yuna Kim’s 10-year gold medal anniversary

Orser also has been having live remote sessions with Cha and Kurakova, and they are also sending videos to him. The only skater he has not seen is Hanyu.

“That’s normal when he is back in Japan,” Orser said. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

How long Hanyu stays in Japan may depend on travel restrictions being loosened in both his homeland and Canada.

“I would like to get them all back, and they need to come back,” Orser said. “But facing a double quarantine is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Only two of the Cricket Club’s international skaters, 2014 Olympian Jason Brown of suburban Chicago and Yi Zhu of Los Angeles (who represents China), have come back to Toronto after leaving in late winter.

It took Brown two tries to get back across the border because of issues with the paperwork necessary for Canada to consider it essential he be allowed to enter. Orser and Wilson want to be sure any skaters coming from Asia and Europe are admitted on the first try.

From April to July, until skaters could get back on the ice in their various homelands, Brown led Thursday off-ice fitness classes via Zoom, with Medvedeva, Cha and Kurakova taking part.

“It was such a fun way to stay connected and still ‘train’ together while we were oceans apart,” Brown said in a Wednesday text message.

Orser and Wilson will recommend that all the foreign skaters training at the Cricket Club try to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled the last weekend of October at a 9,500-seat arena in Ottawa. Wilson thought if the event cannot have spectators, it might be moved to a smaller facility, possibly in a different city.

“All plans are in the early stages,” Skate Canada spokesperson Emma Bowie said in an email.

Grand Prix assignments have not yet been made.

Whether Brown picks Skate Canada over Skate America – if he gets a choice – could depend on when (and if) the Canadian government shortens quarantine periods for travelers from the United States.

“I know that we are in such unprecedented and uncertain times, so I love seeing the ISU being creative and trying to find a way to hold skating events this year,” Brown wrote. “While a lot can happen before October, if it’s safe to do so, I’ll be ready and eager to take part in any events that I can.”

The ISU said it wants to have the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, whether it takes place on its original dates (Dec. 10-13) or early in 2021. The competition is to be used as a test event of the skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

There are no details yet on qualification for the final, which usually is determined by points for placements at the six “regular season” events of the series, held in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan. The top six in each of the sport’s four disciplines make the Final.

In the past, the highest-ranked skaters could compete in up to two Grand Prix events, but ISU Vice-President Alexander Lakernik of Russia said in a Tuesday email that everyone would be limited to one event this year.

Because the Final presumably would have much more of an international field than the six other events, staging it is infinitely more problematic because of travel involved.

“We want what’s best for the sport,” Wilson said. “We have to get these kids out there doing programs, to get them on TV. [Note: An NBC spokesman said the network would, as planned, provide coverage of the Grand Prix, with details forthcoming.] In terms of competition, we’re up for anything.

“For me, though, with all the restrictions, there is no way they will be able to run a fair qualification for the Grand Prix Final. You’ve got to reinvent yourself and make it something else – if you are able to have it at all.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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