A long journey of loss and pain LILLEHAMMER '94

February 26, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

HAMAR, Norway -- Viktor Petrenko remembered the little girl who was alone, the one that would sleep inside a skating rink, that would practice at all hours, refining jumps and spins, finally growing into an Olympic champion.

He was once Ukraine's greatest skating champion. She was an orphan, Oksana Baiul. She never knew her father. Her mother was dead. So were her grandparents.

"She has had a difficult life," said Petrenko, the 1992 Olympic men's skating gold medalist. "And now, it's like she has gotten back what she has lost. She got the medal she wanted."

Baiul, a skating wonder in a fluffy, feathered pink and mauve outfit, won the women's gold medal at the Winter Olympics last night.

She skated in pain. She skated as if in a trance. She ad libbed a combination jump in the final seconds, bringing the crowd to its feet, winning the gold ahead of Nancy Kerrigan, who was second, and Chen Lu of China, who was third.

It was an extraordinary moment. And for Petrenko, Ukraine's first skating star, it was also a night of tears and cheers.

"It was as if I skated," he said.

Baiul won and cried. She got her medal and cried. She heard the Ukrainian national anthem and cried some more.

"I do not remember my feelings when I was on the podium," she said.

But to get the gold, she has made the greatest journey of all, from a rink in Odessa, the one without a Zamboni, to Norway.

A world champion at 15, an Olympic favorite at 16, Baiul nearly saw her dream become a nightmare the day before her biggest show. She collided with Germany's Tanja Szewczenko in a nasty practice accident.

Baiul cut a gash on her right shin and injured her back. Three stitches covered the wound, and ice relieved the swelling in her back.

"When I was told I had three stitches, that was tragedy," Baiul said.

Her coach and surrogate mother, Galina Zmievskaya, said of the accident, "I thought it was another stroke of bad luck."

So through the night, Petrenko and the coach talked with Baiul, tried to make her laugh, tried to make her forget the pain.

"She cried," Petrenko said.

When Baiul returned to the Olympic Amphitheater Rink for a final morning workout yesterday, she made none of her triple jumps and left the practice in tears.

"I saw her before she skated," Petrenko said. "Of course, I knew of her pain. But when I spoke with her, I didn't ask her about her pain. I told her to try to do her best. That to try would be the most important thing."

An hour before she skated, Baiul received a pain injection for her back and pills for a headache, according to her coach.

She was tentative in the warm-up, skating this way and that, to avoid her rivals.

A good thing, too, since France's Surya Bonaly gave a little hip check to Germany's Katarina Witt.

But Baiul would not surrender to the fear. She went out and grabbed the gold. American show tunes played over the sound system, and Baiul tap-danced and leaped across the ice.

She was smooth and easy, planting five triple jumps, spinning wondrously. But she needed something to pull past Kerrigan, something special, something wild, and at the end, she unleashed a combination double axel-double toe loop jump from nowhere.

And Petrenko, sitting in the stands, screamed out.

"Good for her," Petrenko said. "If she did not do it, she might not win."

But Baiul won a 5-4 split decision over Kerrigan.

"The decision was right," Petrenko said.

And Baiul rejoiced.

When she won her world championship last year in Prague, she said, "My tears are God's kisses from my mother in heaven."

And when she won her Olympic gold, she again saluted her mother.

"I believe that the hard life that I have had up to now, this difficult life gives me the strength to compete," she said.

It is a strength that comes from within, a strength that surprises even Petrenko.

"You saw how tough she was," he said. "For me, she is a hero for what she has done. She is unbelievable."

But she is still, after all, nearly a child.

Asked how she would like to celebrate her triumph, she rolled her hazel eyes and smiled.

Said the new Olympic champion, "I want a Snickers bar."

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