Former world champion and US Olympic skater Tai Babilonia was holding an upbeat and congenial conversation with sixth-grade, seventh-grade and eighth-grade students at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Granada Hills on Tuesday, Nov. 27. She was there to engage them about taking care of themselves, eating properly and establishing good lifestyle habits, when things took a poignant turn during a question-and-answer segment.
One student asked her about suicide.
“You did your homework,” Babilonia replied, and then spoke of the time in her life when she was feeling, in her words, “basically lost” despite her fame and accomplishments, and attempted to take her life with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1988. Her family and then publicist initially denied the reports. Babilonia does not deny it now.
“I tried it (suicide). It was the most stupid mistake,” said Babilonia, who recovered after being hospitalized and later went into therapy to help make sense of why she was feeling that way. “But I felt like no one was hearing me. I didn’t trust my skating, myself, my friends, my life…I regret it now, but it is part of my story.
“One thing I did learn (from the attempt): talk to people. You can’t keep all those emotions inside of you. You must use your voice, say what you feel. If something is bugging you, tell someone.”
It was, she told the students, only one part of her life story. And that they, and others, could learn from her mistakes. She went back to her message about making good decisions now that will help them become adults. There had been sporadic signs of inattentiveness by some of the audience — who may not have known much about Babilonia before Tuesday even though they were given bios to read — but everyone was totally with her now.
Babilonia, 59, is one of dozens of Olympic and Paralympic athletes that connect with 50 Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools to help promote fitness and a healthy lifestyle. Each athlete is assigned a specific school, and they will visit those schools five times during the academic year.
The athletes work with the “Ready, Set Gold!” — a nonprofit community health and fitness program established in 2006 to help address rising obesity rates in Southern California school-age children which is funded by both Samsung and the Foundation for Global Sports Development.
Babilonia, with partner and lifelong friend Randy Gardner (she was eight and he was 10 when they were first paired together in 1968), won five US pairs figure championships between 1976 and 1980, and the 1979 World Figure Skating title — and remain the only American skaters to do so.
The duo also qualified for the 1976 and 1980 USA Winter Olympic teams, but unfortunately never medaled. Their best chance would have been in 1980, but Gardner was injured and the duo was forced to withdraw before they could compete.
Babilonia was the first woman of partial African American descent to compete for the USA in the Olympics as a figure skater. She also says Filipino and Native American are part of her heritage.
On Tuesday her conversation points during her four different presentations were direct and sincere. Set goals. Create a plan and stick to it. Make a commitment. Evaluate your progress.
“My goal was not always to win,” she said. “It was about being the best that I could be, and try to improve myself every year. I take that [attitude] through my life.
“Use failure as a learning experience. I learned something every time from taking falls, or coming in last place — that there is no ‘quick fix.’ Keep yourself focused; it will make your adult life so much better. Just know that.”
Establishing good dietary habits now is also important, she said. “Soda is a killer,” she said, eliciting several audible groans. “And stay away from fast foods. There are so many great options out there.”
But the suicide questions came up in three of the four sessions. And Babilonia answered them all frankly and honestly.
A Los Angeles native who lives in the San Fernando Valley, Babilonia is still “very close” to her competition weight of 118 pounds and radiates energy and good health. It wasn’t always that way.
Even before her near-tragic episode in 1988, Babilonia said she struggled with early adulthood and going from being a top-flight amateur skater to being a professional in the 1980s with shows like the Ice Capades.
“Going from that regimented schedule, where everything was planned out from 1970 to that last Olympics in 1980, all [she and Gardner] had to do was skate and train,” Babilonia told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol. “And then everything changed when we became professional. You go out on the road with a touring show for 8-9 months of the year. For me, personally, those were my ‘high school’ years. I totally rebelled. I gained weight.
“My parents were gone, my coach was gone. I was now a professional. I ate whatever I wanted, no one was watching me. I went for it. Every girl skater I know in that same situation has gone through it.”
The weight gain, grinding tour schedule and dissatisfaction with her skating led her down a deeper, more destructive path. Babilonia, feeling lonely and isolated, turned to alcohol and diet pills. Even with walls of loneliness crashing in around her, she was loath to tell anyone her true feelings — including Gardner. She struggled with dating and relationships.
Nothing seemed to help, because Babilonia wasn’t seeking help. “I thought the main problem was that I was tired and overworked. I had no personal life, and there was also the pressure that if I didn’t perform, everyone else would be out of work,” she told “People” Magazine in 1989.
She finally quit skating in 1988. She’s very happy she did not give up on life.
Changing her diet was part of her recovery process. “I stopped eating red meat,” she said. “No particular reason; I didn’t really love it. I also stopped eating chicken. I knew I could be in better shape. I worked on being healthier, being more aware of what was going into my body.” She also celebrated 10 years of sobriety on Nov. 4.
Since then Babilonia, who has a 23-year-old son named Scout, has dabbled in a variety of endeavors including “Skating With Celebrities” and hosting a TV talk show in Santa Barbara. And even though the ups-and-downs of her life have been well chronicled, she is working on a book of her memoirs. “It’s time,” she said.
Babilonia hopes the students will be motivated toward setting goals, and not necessarily in sports. “You don’t have to be an Olympian. You can be a great schoolteacher, a doctor. But whatever it is, you have to set goals.”
The students at Patrick Henry Middle Schools can ask her about goals. They can ask her about life. They can ask her about entering the deepest recesses of your soul and psyche and coming out the other side.
They can ask her anything. And they will have four more chances to do so.