Baiul makes her way back from thin ice Comeback: Gold medal skater is returning to center ice in Baltimore after a damaging run-in with sudden celebrity. She swears she has learned something.

April 16, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

The stage director, on skates and cradling a boombox in one arm, is traversing the ice at the Baltimore Arena, teaching the skaters their roles in the opening number. He works first with Rudy Galindo on his big, hands-over-head finish, then with ice dancers Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko on a jazzy, hip-jutting bit, then with French skater Surya Bonaly on her energetic jumps.

The director then moves on to a pale, blond skater who has emerged on the sidelines. He cues the music and she follows him like a shadow as he skates toward center ice.

From his boombox, the BeeGees are singing, "Ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin' alive . . ."

Oksana Baiul is back, not from the dead, but from an absence on the public stage. For a professional ice skater, it's not the same thing, but altogether too close for comfort.

Baiul has been making more news off than on the ice lately. In fact, her performance tonight, in the opening show of the 90-day Tour of World Figure Skating Champions, will be under close scrutiny.

"I haven't skated in a year in the front of the public," Baiul says in a whispery voice, her saucer eyes darting about as if someone might overhear. "I was kind of nervous for a while. I've been concerned. I have a lot of distractions."

Primary among them, of course, was her Jan. 12 car accident. Baiul, 19, was driving her lime green Mercedes at nearly 100 mph on one of the winding streets outside her home in Simsbury, Conn. Her blood alcohol level was 0.168 percent, well over the 0.10 state limit. Police say it's a miracle she wasn't killed and instead escaped with a concussion and 12 stitches to close a gash on her head.

For some, the accident was a metaphor for a life spinning out of control. She had suffered knee and back injuries and had been unable to perform, but some believed she had more than physical problems. Oksana was barhopping instead of training, it was said, the Ukrainian orphan girl was too enthralled with the riches of her new American life.

Today, she seems chastened by the experience, yet denies her drinking is a problem.

"It was just party," she says of that night. "It's not problem."

Baiul promises never to drink and drive again. And, with her huge, pale eyes, she has the contrition of a guilty child -- the one whose intentions are always sincere, for the moment.

"It was horrible. I got scared. I got scared for a lot of people who I knew, and I got scared for myself," Baiul says. "I thought, Jesus Christ, what am I going to do without my skating, without my fans?"

Her fans will see a radically different Baiul on this tour. She has bleached her hair white-blond, and it is chopped short in a sort of retro-mod cut. She's wearing chartreuse eye shadow. She's taller, and fleshier. "It's OK for a woman to have hips, no?" she asks rhetorically. Perhaps wiser for her latest troubles, but she is 19. She hasn't finished testing the waters of adulthood.

Her $450,000 Connecticut mansion, where she lives alone, was her biggest mistake, she now thinks. She wants an apartment in New York instead.

"To be in Connecticut, it's an amazing place, to concentrate. But for me, it's so much better to rent. I'm a young girl, I don't have kids, I don't have my family yet," she says, rationalizing out loud.

"It's OK to grow up sometimes," she concludes in her charmingly accented whisper.

She seems a bit skittish today in the lobby of her hotel, changing her mind on whether she wants an espresso, deciding to get a little one, then after one sip bounding across the room to get two sugars.

But she is happy to be back, training and performing and traveling with the people she considers her family.

Abandoned by her father at 2, orphaned by her beloved mother's death at 13, Baiul was drawn into skating by coaches who took her in. Other athletes, particularly Viktor Petrenko, became her siblings.

"I think I used to have a lot of mothers and fathers and grandfathers," she says with a roll of her expressive eyes, speaking of the close-knit skaters with whom she's touring. "I think I'm a kid in this family. But a big kid."

Indeed, even at the young age of 19, there are even younger skaters who have pushed into the spotlight -- the 14-year-old world champ Tara Lipinksi is on this tour, as is the 15-year-old Michelle Kwan.

The skating world lives in a compressed time span -- you are on top for increasingly shorter periods as ever younger skaters come up. And so many stars have chosen to go professional, rather than endure the highly pressurized world of competitive amateur skating.

"It's too much stress, from the judges, the coaches," says Galindo, a national champion who recently went pro. "All year long, your stomach hurts because a competition is always coming up."

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