FINDING HER WINGS:
Honesty, Sobriety, & Finding a Voice
A Dialogue with Tai Babilonia
By Dr. Chris Emerson
Dr. Chris Emerson recently interviewed American pair figure skater Tai Babilonia. With partner Randy Gardner, the pair were five-time gold medalists at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and won the gold medal at the 1979World Figure Skating Championships. Babilonia and Gardner were medal favorites at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, but were forced to withdraw due to an injury to Gardner.
After time away from California, living in Las Vegas and Ashland, Oregon, Tai is back in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a memoir. We began our talk by discussing relationships, and Tai described the recent ending of a long-term romantic relationship.
DR. CHRIS EMERSON: What happened in your relationship?
TAI BABILONIA: It ended last November. What happened was I found my voice. If I wasn't sober, we wouldn't even be here, it was that bad. But I was able to keep it together, just believe in myself and take it as "...this is part of life." I said "thank you" to him, because it was a good thing. I turned it around. I grew, I grew up.
CE: Is your sobriety a big part of your capacity to say "thank you" and move on?
TB: Absolutely (flexes her biceps).
TB: Wings! Finding My Wings will probably be the title of the book. So, with that, I turned it around, said "thank you" for allowing me to go and grow. And now all of this stuff is starting to happen.
CE: So what's happening to you as a result of all this? What's the transformation?
TB: It's the confidence, and finding my voice, being able to say "No." I think the voice was always there, but I let people push it down. I always wanted a strong person in my life, a male figure, a companion, but it became too strong, too controlling, where I lost the control. I have the control now. I'm in control.
CE: You took control of your life back.
TB: I really didn't know I had it. And I'm just using it in a positive way. . . I can't explain it. It was a struggle when it first ended because I was scared, and I knew I had to work. I needed the confidence to know I could do it alone. And I want to try everything.
CE: How do you describe this person you're becoming?
TB: I don't know for sure. But I'm finding out. I just know she has the confidence and the strength and the voice to stand up to anyone.
CE: I think a position of not knowing is a very powerful position. It allows for a movement into something new.
TB: I just know it feels good - it feels great, that I call the shots. Not that I know everything, because I don't. But I can pick the phone up and I can get through the door. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it sucks, but I'm proud of myself. For the first time, I'm proud of myself.
CE: That's an interesting thing to hear you say, that for the first time, you're proud of yourself, when you're a woman who has accomplished so much in your life...
TB: For the first time, yeah. The first thing I was proud of is sobriety. Not forty-five years with my skating partner, not giving birth - that's up there, of course - but I didn't realize it until I was sober. Now looking at all those accomplishments - and it's a lot - I appreciate it, and I'm now proud of all of that.
CE: So the sobriety gives you a framework to experience those aspects of your life of which you can be proud?
TB: Yes, absolutely. I can go to YouTube and watch old footage and say, "Wow, we were good, I didn't notice it before -- I was so in it -- and with the drama, the work, and all the stuff, I wasn't able to appreciate it." So I have found the love by stopping. Found the love for skating, for the performing, for all of it. But I had to stop it first.
When you read (Andre) Agassi's book, probably the best sports autobiography - he hated tennis, he hated it. He was doing it for his father; he was good, he was the golden ticket. Now, and he's still playing, he appreciates it, so it's similar. He's doing it for himself.
CE: And his life has expanded. He's such a force for others.
TB: Yes. He gave back. Giving back is key, too, for me - not money, but physically, being with kids, paying it forward -- is huge for me. And that's part of feeling proud of myself.
CE: You said that therapy was one of the tools for transformation for you.
TB: The first time I went into therapy, basically they insisted on it -- back in 1988 we were working non-stop, from '81 until I crashed in '88 -- I did try to take my life, did not want to be here, took a handful of sleeping pills and some booze, and obviously I'm still here . . . it was a cry for help - I was in therapy three days a week.
I hated it, didn't trust it. Couldn't understand why this person I didn't even know was asking me all these stupid - I thought at the time - stupid, silly questions. I thought it was a complete waste of time, but slowly started to understand, when she started going deep back into my childhood, I thought, "Cool."
I started putting the pieces together - why this, why that, why, why, why. She went back into when I was a little kid and I loved it, I learned to love it. And now, with the book, there are some questions about relationships that I want to go deeper with. I'm seeing a pattern with my father, even with my coach, some of the ex- boyfriends, and the control they had over me, where I didn't have the voice - but it started with my dad, who was a cop.
And they were not very vocal or emotional men, my father, my coach, the last relationship, very inward - and I wanted more. I just wanted some reaction and I never could get it. And that's the struggle with the men in my life. And I want to go deeper. I know which therapist I'll go to to find out why I let it keep happening with the same kind of man -- non-verbal, and I'm the opposite.
CE: What about your relationship with your skating partner Randy Gardner? How long have you been working together?
TB: Forty-five years.
CE: What makes it work?
TB: It worked because we had a goal. From the beginning, we wanted to be great pair skaters, be a great pair team. But there's more to it. That relationship is interesting. I try not to analyze it, but now I want to analyze it, now I want to go there - how did we do that, with the parents who didn't speak, and the best coach in the world but just not verbal and emotional? But it worked.
CE: And it works today?
TB: And it works today. I just saw Randy this morning. I know he sees the difference, the change in me, the evolution. He sees it - I'm very vocal, I stand up for myself if something's not right. I'm in it, I go at it in a positive way.
CE: How would you describe the relationship?
TB: He's like a brother, an older brother-soulmate. I don't know if we're best friends, but there's a bond there. I'm trying to understand it now that we're closing a chapter. There's a part of me that really wants to figure it out, and there's a part of me that says, no - it's so special, there's a mystery to it that I love - it's complicated, we're very complicated . . .
Remember what happened in Lake Placid, when he got hurt, the injury - all that stuff, the drama and the press - it put us on the map in a weird way it made us even more popular than if we would have won, because people saw that we were human and they just embraced us and they still embrace us to this day.
But to this day, we have not talked about that, like you and I are talking now. I never asked him, "How did you feel? Was it painful?" Any of it. We just sort of left it.
CE: How do you make sense of that going underground for all those years? Was there some kind of unspoken agreement that it won't be talked about?
TB: We were able to mask it because after it, he got better - there was a question about would he be able to skate - yes, he was able to skate after - we went right back into it but now as pros and on the road, so we didn't have time, it's like, here we go again... so it was masked. But I could only hold it together so long; I held it together for 8 years, not easy. A lot of drinking, masking it. It's fascinating to me.
CE: You mentioned before that your tendency is to look outwardly for positive reactions from others.
TB: Yeah, and it can be frustrating. As my therapist says, "Quit looking for the reaction. Stop. You're not going to get it."
CE: I think we all want our experience to be mirrored back to us. Little kids need it. That's how an infant starts to develop a sense of self -- Mommy is like a mirror to the baby. We want that, we need that as a child to figure out who we are, and we continue to want our experience witnessed and mirrored as adults.
TB: But is that needy?
CE: I think it's a need. But is it needy? I don't know. I believe that we have "healthy dependency needs" and we have them all through life. And we still need to be mirrored, in the way that you're describing - we need it from our partners, we need it from colleagues, family ...
CE: ... and what you're describing to me is a very interesting series of experiences that you've had and that you are having about communication, mirroring.
TB: Communication. That's all I want. I don't want you jumping up and down - it just seems so simple to me and it seems so difficult for that group of people, the most influential people around me, they're not able to. The therapist said, "You're not gonna get it because they didn't get it. That's all they know, maybe you've got to cut them some slack."
CE: Yes, cut them some slack . . . but still get your needs met.
TB: Right. But how? Get your needs met from them?
CE: No, not necessarily; by recognizing that not every relationship is going to fill our every need, and that it's OK to have needs - that healthy dependency needs continue all through life -- that people have needs and we deserve to have them met.
CE: Does it make us needy? Yes. Does it make us human? Yes.
TB: Even with my sobriety, because I'm very open with it -, I've got support from friends and fans -- they're not angry, it's like I'm doing OK, they're not turned off by it. They're my cheerleaders. My son, out of everybody, is my biggest supporter. He gets it. He says, "Mom, I get it and I'm proud of you and I understand."
CE: What's different about sobriety this time around for you?
TB: So this time I had one more chance, and I knew that. I knew if I screwed up again it would hit the papers, hit the press, and I knew I was screwed. And that was also a fear in the (AA) meetings, not trusting - someone saying something and it getting out in the press. So that was also my motivation. You get one chance.
CE: And the skating community supported and helped you?
TB: This time around, yes, and the last time - with me coming out in '88 with the People magazine cover story about the suicide attempt and the alcoholism and whatever else - that article with the cover story, and the movie of the week, I didn't do it for anyone else but me. It was to clean my slate and start over.
But at the time I didn't take sobriety seriously, I didn't take meetings seriously. I thought I could handle a glass of wine which turned into a bottle of wine which turned into . . . well, I'm an alcoholic.
But this time, I knew I wasn't going to get a second chance. And I have to work, that factors into it, I need to work. And I have a reputation. But this time they understand it was a problem; in the beginning, they didn't think it was a problem, they thought it was me acting out.
CE: So where do you see yourself going in the next chapter of your life - this life with a voice, with wings?
TB: I want to experience everything, personally and professionally. I'll try love again, I'm open to a serious relationship. I was jaded after what happened this last time. I hated men, went through all that. Professionally, I want to try everything, I'm open to everything.
CE: You're a businesswoman and an athlete; what other roles do you apply to yourself?
TB: I'm a mom first. Professionally, I don't know exactly where it's going to end: producing, writing more than one book, I'm experiencing everything right now and just going 150% with everything. Everything to keep myself out there and current. I'm not going in the normal coaching direction, choreography - I want to be different.
CE That's a great answer.
TB: It's a journey. Like Alice in Wonderland.
CE:: Did she have wings and muscles and a voice?
TB: She does now.