Life of a Saucy Showgirl (a biography of Oksana Bayul)

by P. A. Todzia

Here is a biography of Oksana that I have compiled. It is not an original work of scholarship or journalism. Damn! I just wasn't able to interview her! So it is only as good as my sources, which I will list at the end of part two. If any one knows of any good sources that I've missed, be kind, don't criticize, let me know; or post it here for all.
Oksana Bayul, or Baiul was born in Dnepropetrovsk in central Ukraine S. S. R. on Nov. 26, 1977. (Europeans render her name the first way, and Americans use the second spelling. The difference results from transcription from the Cyrillic alphabet. A paperwork error had her birthday listed as Feb. 26, 1977 before her world title.) Her first fourteen years were filled with tragedy and heart-break. Her father abandoned the family when Oksana was only two. Her mother died of Ovarian cancer at age 36 in 1991. After the funeral, Oksana went onto the ice. "She was just out there gliding and crying, crying and gliding," her first coach reported. Her grandmother died in 1992. Through all the turmoil, she kept on skating.

As a child Oksana dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer; not an unusual dream for a girl in the country that was home to the Bolshoi and Baryshnikov. However, the story goes, that Oksana was a chubby girl, not at all like the quintessential, svelte ballerina. Her grandfather got the idea that skating would be good exercise to trim her down, and he got her first pair of skates.

Oksana's first coach, Stanislav Koretek immigrated to Canada leaving the tumultuous, bankrupt former Soviet Republic in 1992. For a while, Oksana slept on a cot in her practice rink. It was then that Viktor Petrenko, a fellow Ukrainian skater came to the rescue. Petrenko had won: a bronze medal for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Olympic Games, a gold medal for the Unified Team of the CIS at the 1992 Olympic Games (the first skater from the Former Soviet Union to do so in singles), and a world title also in 1992. Petrenko suggested that his own coach and mother-in-law, Galina Y. Zmievskaya take charge of the orphaned waif. And so with Petrenko assuming the bills for skates and outfits, Oksana moved from Dnepropetrovsk into Zmievskaya's home in Odessa. She shared a small room, with one of Zmievskaya's daughters, where she kept pictures of the Virgin Mary, but none of her mother. She asserted that she did not need them. "My mother will never leave me. We're together. She will always stay in my heart," Oksana told Time magazine in 1994.

Oksana's debut in international competition occurred in November 1992, when she placed fourth in the Nation's Cup Games at Gelsenkirchen, Germany. She had not even made an appearance in the Junior World's Championships, because she had never been able to qualify, although she had won the U. S. S.R. Junior Cup. In January 1993 Oksana skated to a silver medal in the European CHampionships held in Helsinki, Finland. She was the last of 25 skaters to perform her technical program, and started poorly; hitting the boards, and 1/3 of the way through her program quit with a lace mishap. Allowed to restart, she won first place cards from two of the judges, and captured third place. Marina Kielmann of Germany held second place after the technicals. After the final programs, Surya Bonaly won the gold medal, the third for the French skater. Bonaly said of Oksana, ". . .I saw it could be close, as she is more artistic than I am." Three judges placed Oksana in first place. The final standings were: 1)Bonaly 1.5 pts.; 2)Oksana 3.5 pts.; 3)Kielmann 4.0; and Tanja Szewczenko 6.0.

However Bonaly, who was favored that year to win the world title in Prague, Czech Republic was edged out by Oksana, who clinched the gold with superior artistic scores. She charmed all by gliding, smiling, skipping and crying her way to the podium. Despite the close scores between Oksana and Bonaly, and a second place finish in the technical program behind Nancy Kerrigan, the Sunday Times proclaimed Oksana enthusiastically: "Saucy Showgirl runs rings round Bonaly." Oksana rfused to start her programs until she was ready, merely taking the ice and gliding around. She explained later that she listens to her skates, and that they tell her when they are ready. This and her frizzy pony tail have become her well-known shibboleths. Her long program was a sensation; she landed five triple jumps to a medley of show music. The judges gave her scores ranging from 5.6 to 5.9. Bonaly was strong and courageous, landing seven triple jumps, but had inferior artistic scores. Kerrigan's long program was a disaster, and she finished in ninth place, far from a medal. China's Chen Lu won the bronze. Oksana would have been the first woman from the Soviet Union to win a world title in singles, but she became instead the first woman from the newly independent Ukraine to do so. She was the youngest world champion since Sonja Henie won the first of her ten world titles in 1927.

Between the 92-93 season and the 93-94 season, Oksana grew two-inches. THis caused her to have trouble with some of the landings for her jumps. As a result, Szewczenko beat her in the Nation's Cup in the Autumn of '93, and Bonaly won her fourth European title. Oksana finished second in both competitions. The only major title that she won in the 93-94 season was at Skate America.

The closest Olympic Women's Figure Skating Competition occurred in 1994, and it was the most dramatic in history too. First, there was the bad-girl of skating, Tonya Harding, who was accused of hiring thugs to eliminate Nancy Kerrigan from the U. S. Nationals, and then suing her way to Lillehammer. Secondly there was Oksana. Just one before the long programs she collided, at nearly full speed, with 16-year old Tanja Szewczenko, of Germany. Szewczenko suffered bruises on her right flank and her abdomen. Katarina Witt helped Oksana to her feet, and then assisted Szewczenko in leaving the ice. Despite all the cameras in the arena, the accident was not captured on film. All the media was directed on Kerrigan, who skated through her long program practice serenely aloof. Oksana spiked her lower right leg with the blade of her skate, inflicting a two-inch long, half inch cut, which required three stitches. She also wrenched her back, and jarred her shoulder. At a subsequent practice, Oksana left the ice early and in tears. She thought that the pain would keep her from skating in the final program. A doctor prescribed two shots of an IOC approved anesthetic one hour before her final routine on Feb. 25th. Her friend Petrenko told her, "Many times I ahve skated through pain. Now, you must."

Going into the long programs, America's skating debutante Nancy Kerrigan was in first place, and Oksana was in second. Japan's Yuka Sato took the lead after her long program, but she had no mark higher than 5.7. Then it was the turn of Chen Lu to lead, with high marks of 5.8. And then Kerrigan took to the ice. About thirty-seconds into her long program Kerrigan landed a double flip instead of a triple. But five other triple jumps gave her no problems. She executed two fine combinations: a triple toe loop-triple toe loop, and a triple salchow-double toe loop. Kerrigan skated an excellent program that brought the crowd to their feet, and scored well with the judges. Everyone including Kerrigan thought she had won the gold. Their confidence was a mistake.

Oksana had the advantage of skating after Kerrigan. This put her under tremendous pressure, but she knew what she had to do in order to win. She came onto the ice, glided around to compose herself, but as she was about to start her program debris was spotted on the ice, from the numerous bouquets thrown to Kerrigan. Two of the Norwegian flower girls were sent out to clear it. Oksana had to recompose herself.

Oksana skated a wonderful program to a medley of Broadway show tunes: My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, A Chorus Line, and Cabaret. She did a slight two-footed landing on a triple flip, near the beginning of her program. However, she danced affectingly around the rink, and landed perfectly a triple lutz, triple loop, and a double axel. She was clever enough to realize that this was not enough, and that she would be penalized for leaving out some other difficult elements in the middle of her routine. In the last ten seconds, she spontaneously added a triple toe loop, with a double axel-double toe loop combination, which is not often done so late in a program because of fatigue. This last-second flurry was what probably gave her the advantage. These last jumps required great courage for they deviated from her regular, well-rehearsed program, which some critics claimed was still lacking fluency. No doubt some of the judges highly appreciated these significant changes made under such prodigious pressure. Of her dramatic finale, Oksana later said, "I remembered time was running out, and with it time for the gold medal." Through all of her program, she flashed her famous, captivating smile while experiencing pain from her injury. As she left the ice, she broke into profuse tears. As her scores were announced she slumped onto her coach's shoulder and wept boisterously, seemingly unable to comprehend her fractual lead.

Again, Oksana's artistic scores won her the gold. Here's how the judges scored Kerrigan and Oksana, (the first rows of scores are for the skater's technical merit, the second are for artistic presentation):

Oksana:   5.6  5.8  5.9  5.8  5.8  5.8  5.8  5.5  5.7
          5.8  5.9  5.9  5.9  5.9  5.8  5.8  5.9  5.9

totals:  11.4  11.7 11.8 11.7 11.7 11.6 11.6 11.4 11.6
ordinals:3     1    1    1    1    2    2    3    1

Kerrigan: 5.8  5.8  5.8  5.7  5.7  5.8  5.8  5.7  5.8
          5.9  5.8  5.9  5.9  5.9  5.9  5.9  5.8  5.8

totals:  11.7  11.6 11.7 11.6 11.6 11.7 11.7 11.5 11.6
ordinals:1     2    2    2    2      1    1    1    2
Four judges went for Kerrigan outright, and four voted for Oksana. One judge, Jan Hoffmann, a former East German Champion who had won world title in 1974 and 1980, and an Olympic Silver Medal in 1980, gave both skaters identical scores of 11.6, but the higher artistic score to Oksana 5.9 to 5.8. According to the scoring rules, the artistic presentation is used to decide ties. Oksana was awarded a fifth first place vote as a consequence. Such a close outcome was bound to generate controversy. Then there were the reporters, some of whom had formed into an informal group of Kerrigan supporters, which became known as "The Nancy Boys." Soon sosme of them were proclaiming a resumption of the Cold War because the judges from the former Warsaw Pact countries and China had voted for Oksana!

Kerrigan must have been shocked. Surely she had expected to take the gold. But this was Lillehammer not Hollywood. Kerrigan, who had overcome her own injury when she was clubbed in the knee on Jan 6, at the apparent instigation of Harding, had to settle for silver. She was not happy. When there was an unexpected delay with the presentation of the medals because no one could locate the Ukrainian National Anthem, Kerrigan assumed that Oksana was keeping everyone waiting to fix her make-up. "Oh, come on," Kerrigan pouted, "So she's going to come out here and cry again. What's the difference?" Later Kerrigan criticized Oksana's performance.

Only two years before, Oksana had obtained her first pair of new skates. Now she stood on the highest podium with the big, gold, Olympic medal proudly displayed on her chest. She was the youngest Olympic women's champ since Henie in 1928. Asked by a reporter what she wanted now that she had Olympic gold, Oksana replied, "A Snickers." A cute and witty reply that also made good business sense. Mars, Inc. that candy bar's manufacturer, courted her, and signed her to a multi-year contract to promote it.

Oksana returned to Ukraine a day ahead of her teammates. A custom's officer was the first to greet her, with a kiss and a bouquet. A joyous throng awaited her. Then she met with many Ukrainian officials. Leonid Kravchuk, the president, awarded her a check for $15,000, which was promptly used to buy shares in an industrial-investment bank. Oksana gave Kravchuk a poster signed by each member of the Ukrainian Olympic team. She hardly had time to pack before meeting her next dignitary, President Clinton of the U. S. Kravchuk took the elfin heroine on his offical state visit to Washington. "She has this ageless look in her face," the Associated Press qouted Clinton as saying about Oksana. "I think it's kind of neat that he [Kravchuk] asked her to come." Then she returned to Odessa and the ancient rink with soft, uneven, dangerously pitted ice. Still wearing a back-brace because of her injury, she practiced with Petrenko for a Summer tour of seventy American cities.

The next time that she packs, it will be to move her training headquarters to a new $5 million skating center in Simsbury, Connecticut. World Skate, Inc. was scheduled to begin construction on the arena this april. Kravchuk declared his intentions of keeping Oksana in Ukraine, but because of his country's desperate economic condition this promise seems as foggy as Oksana's Odessa rink under a hot, Summer sun.

BY all acounts Oksana skates with a maturity beyond her years. She maintains that the hardships she has suffered have given her the fortitude to compete in the high pressure international competitions. She has wonderfully expressive hand gestures, and the agile elegance of a ballerina. All this is reinforced with a fine repertoire of triple jumps. Both Oksana and her coach credit God for her talent. Oksana is many things: athlete, saucy showgirl, ballerina, giddy school girl, survivor, and champion.

--P. A. Todzia


Times (London) 1993 Jan. 13, 36a
Times (London) 1993 Jan. 15, 34h
New York Times 1993 Mar. 14, VIII, 7:6
Sunday Times (London) 1993 Mar. 14, 2/9a
Sports Illustrated 1993 Mar. 22, 78:22-3
Time 1994 Jan. 24, 56-57
New York Times 1994 Feb. 25, B7:5
Philadelphia Inquirer 1994 Feb. 25, 1:1
Los Angeles Times 1994 Feb. 26, 1:1
New York Times 1994 Feb. 26, 1:1
New York Times 1994 Feb. 26, A29:1
Philadelphia Inquirer 1994 Feb. 26, 1:1
Syracuse Post-Standard 1994 Feb. 26, 1:2
Syracuse Post-Standard 1994 Feb. 26, C1:2
Times (London) 1994 Feb. 26, 40a
The Observer (London) 1994 Feb. 27, sport sec. 12-13
New York Times 1994 Mar. 3, B11:2
Syracuse Herald-Journal 1994 Mar. 4, B1:5
Chicago Tribune 1994 Mar. 18, Bus. Sec. p. 4
New York Times 1994 Apr. 7, C1:1
Syracuse Herald-Journal 1994 Apr. 8, C3:3

From: (Andy - Patrizio)